British History seems to be hot right now, in films and television and theater. Darkest Hour is director Joe Wright’s film dramatizing Winston Churchill’s rise to power during the early days of WWII (1940) and the crisis of Britain’s European allies falling like dominoes to Hitler’s enormous war machine. With over 300,000 troops trapped at Dunkirk, France, Great Britain is faced with the decision of suing for peace terms with Hitler and hoping they can maintain their independence (this seems highly unlikely) or retreating their troops and fighting to the end, no matter the consequences. By focusing on a fairly short period of time in May and June 1940 the filmmakers maintain a tautness and urgency. However it is Gary Oldman’s tour-de-force as the embattled Prime Minister that is the whole show here, and it is a great show.
Physically transformed with prosthetic make up, Oldman is unrecognizable as the tenacious, charismatic leader. On the outside, Churchill is blustery, verbally brilliant, and occasionally befuddled. On the inside, he is vulnerable, doubtful and struggles with his own courage. Whether this interior life is historically accurate or not, isn’t important, because it makes for great drama. Surely, the humanization of Churchill is necessary to counteract his quirky, abrasive exterior. Oldman’s ability to inhabit Churchill is astonishing. He does a great deal with his eyes and voice. He sometimes stammers and falters even when making a particularly astute point. Being in the moment, and making every moment real is perhaps Oldman’s greatest accomplishment here. The Camera work isn’t particularly fancy or obvious; but simple close-ups with Oldman feeling something are incredibly powerful. I consider Oldman the greatest actor to have never won an Oscar, but I feel this is his year. He deserves it, and hopefully will walk away with an Academy Award in February 2018.
All other elements work in this well-crafted film, including solid work by co-stars: Kristin Scott Thomas, Ben Mendelsohn, Lilly James, Ronald Pickup and Stephen Dillane. All period details as well as the score and cinematography are top notch. A scene where Churchill rides the underground and interacts with and queries the general public of London seems apocryphal and has been criticized as reading glaringly false and just sloppy writing – but I liked it. The whole film has a “maybe this went on behind the scenes, maybe it didn’t” vibe- which I bought right away.
Dunkirk directed by Christopher Nolan released earlier this year and also in the film award loop, is a great companion piece to Darkest Hour. They both illuminate the resolve, strength and ingenuity of Great Britain, which was the sole undefeated opponent of the Axis powers until the United States entered the war in December 1941. Add to the mix, the Oscar winning The Imitation Game from 2014 and you might just be waving a Union Jack.