Joe Wright’s “Darkest Hour” (2017)

YOU DO SOMETIMES wonder if there’s anyone more frequently cited than Winston Churchill, whose talent and taste for an uplifting maxim or a pithy put-down has been elevated to the world of legend. He is, for instance, supposed to have said that ‘continuous effort, not strength of intelligence, is the key to unlocking and using our potential’, but that particular line was in fact taken from a 1981 book by Liane Cordes entitled The Reflecting Pond: Meditations for Self-Discovery, which was written to help people overcome addiction. And there is of course the famous “never, never, never give up”, which, though similar to something actually uttered by Churchill, in fact went, “never give in, never give in, never, never, never, never.”

The dubious accuracy of the aphorisms to Churchill notwithstanding, you wonder whether, while researching his role in Darkest Hour, Gary Oldman spent any great length of time meditating on the long list of things that supposedly came out of Churchill’s mouth, and whether the great man’s exhortation never to give up (or give in, I should say) gave the great actor any encouragement. It would be fitting. After all, Oldman, who until this year had only ever received one Academy Award nomination, for Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, and who was passed over, almost unbelievably, in the years of State of Grace, JFK and Sid and Nancy, finally received his Oscar for this role.


Darkest Hour is only latest film to tap in, so to say, to what various commentators have called the “Brexit zeitgeist”, and both follows and makes a good companion piece to Christopher Nolan’s outstanding Dunkirk.


Darkest Hour is only the latest film to tap in, so to say, to what various commentators have called the “Brexit zeitgeist”, and both follows and makes a good companion piece to Christopher Nolan’s outstanding Dunkirk. The titular darkest hour arrives for Winston Churchill in 1940, as the vast legions of the German Wehrmacht gather just south of the white cliffs of Dover in the north of France. The film, however, has little by way of action; it takes place mainly in the smokey rooms and corridors of the Houses of Lords and Commons and Churchill’s famous bunker. Churchill, meanwhile, is pitched not against Hitler or Mussolini but against a faction of politicians convinced of the merits of appeasement. Neville Chamberlain (Ronald Pickup) and the Foreign Secretary, the “Holy Fox” Lord Halifax (Stephen Dillane) are the main villains of this tale, insisting that Churchill seek out a deal with the Nazis while simultaneously undermining his position in parliament.


What follows is a matter of historical record, but the performance of Gary Oldman reinvigorates this familiar narrative. And that is not, of course, to say he simply looks the part, which at any rate has more to do with the hair and costume department than it does with Oldman. What Oldman does is make the role his own.


What follows is a matter of historical record, but the performance of Gary Oldman reinvigorates this familiar narrative. And that is not, of course, to say he simply looks the part, which at any rate has more to do with the hair and costume department than it does with Oldman. What Oldman does is make the role his own. His take on Churchill is the most distinct of the recent portrayals, including by Brian Cox in Churchill, John Lithgow in The Crown and Timothy Spall in The King’s Speech. (Incidentally, director Joe Wright does not make the error, as Tom Hooper did, of suggesting that Churchill supported the abdication of Edward VIII). Rather, Oldman presents Churchill as a complicated character capable, unquestionably, of greatness, but also of self-doubt, crushing bouts of depression and the Machiavellian manipulation of rivals in the dark corners of the Commons.

Darkest Hour is a film about Churchill. The supporting performances of Kristin Scott Thomas as Churchill’s exasperated wife, Clemmie, and of Lily James as a young WAAF secretary whose relationship with Churchill takes on a filial character, are strong but the roles are largely underdeveloped. Pickup and Dillane, meanwhile, do a fine job as the closest thing to villains in the film. But Darkest Hour is really Oldman’s film, in that it’s memorable not for its direction or script, but for the downcast expression on Churchill’s face when he’s overcome with depression, or his wild-eyed ferocity as he administers a thorough dressing-down to staff in the Cabinet War Rooms. Darkest Hour isn’t exactly gripping or melancholy or thought-provoking in any way, but it is a very appropriate platform for Gary Oldman’s long under-appreciated acting prowess.

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