In a scene, in Darkest Hour, Winston Churchill, played by the unrecognizable Gary Oldman, is sitting by himself, lost in thought and a frustrating state of contemplation; his wife comes in and says “The King is here.” Churchill says ” Whose King, Ours?” His wife sarcastically says “Well, if it weren’t him, it must be a miraculous impersonation of his”. She might well be talking about the Genius of Gary Oldman’s miraculous impersonation of Churchill. This is one of those performances that defines an actor’s career, an awards favorite. Oldman’s brilliance is ably aided by some extraordinary and sharp writing and this combination produces a character that is at once funny, vulnerable and inspiring.
The film is set in 1940s, the war was never closer with an impending invasion by the Hitler’s army. Prime Minister, Neville Chamberlain is dethroned and an irritable, confused and mentally fidgety Churchill is made the Prime Minister. The early scenes where we are introduced to this character are wonderfully written and help us connect to the person in the newly appointed Prime Minister. We first see Churchill sitting up in bed, he lights his Cigar and for a spilt second, in that warm, red flame, we see a fluffy old man’s face. This moment of beauty sets us up for a lineup of beautifully lit shots. A young lady, Churchill’s new secretary is appointed and the tender relationship between the two is the best aspect of the film. Secretary, Elizabeth Layton is played by Lily James. She starts out by being scared away by an irate Churchill but as the film moves ahead, a once terrified secretary becomes a supportive mother figure to Churchill, especially when he gives his speeches with the nervousness of a schoolboy. It is endearing.
Churchill is now the President and has announced that he will wage war onto the murderous German army. This aggression of his, doesn’t go down well with others in his party who find it rational to sign a peace treaty, and the rest of the film is a documentation of the frustrated, arguments among these Politicians who are desperate to Save their nation in the time of crisis, in their own ways. We see Churchill confused about the action that he needs to propose as the man in power, he is never good with his judgments, we are told. This conundrum is beautifully portrayed through a nuanced and deeply affecting performance by Oldman but beyond a point the screenplay gets repetitive as it chews on a little too much into this tug of war of opinions and does not offer anything unexpected but only until an unforgettable scene is conceived, in which Churchill boards an underground train. This, brilliantly executed scene redeems the film and thrusts us into a rousing climax.
Staying true to its title, every frame is composed and lit with a sense of gloom over it, mostly dark, with sprinkles of light scattered in a few places in the frame, this is a film that revels in the atmospherics. A film on the same war but one which is set in the battle field, Dunkirk chooses a tense, brief narrative to evoke a sense of panic in the time of war, Darkest Hour plays around more with the dryness of the politics of it all, mostly set in meeting rooms and offices with papers and typewriters.
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The most significant achievement of this film is the writing of Churchill’s character. The writing never gets reverential like most biopics do, it rather strips the character of all its vanity and presents to us the human being behind the celebrated leader. Darkest Hour is a powerful film, surprisingly humorous for a historic, political, war drama but is not gripping at all times, thanks to a narrative that’s not particularly Kinetic and takes its own sweet time to reach the crescendo; even if this was how Joe Wright chose to tell this story, you end up wishing for more.