There is the common question when your friend recommends a sequel to you – “did I have to have seen the first one?”. The answer will of course depend on the franchise. In a weird twist of scheduling this year, we get two World War 2 movies, very different but focusing mostly on the same thing, and the question you might ask your movie-going pal who is recommending Darkest Hour might be, “do I need to have seen Dunkirk?”
Well, technically, no, but boy, does it help. (We could add, depending on the age and idiocy of the person, “did I need to have seen WWII?” Answer, no, that real life global conflict came out long ago, but you should stream it. It’s a classic.)
We are here to discuss Darkest Hour, Joe Wright’s recent film about mostly Winston Churchill’s rise to leadership during difficult times. However, because of its focus on Dunkirk, and the fact that it was released mere months after Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk, it seems fair to pull the earlier, also Oscar-nominated film into this discussion. It might not be as gracious to muddy the waters with another question that might be asked after viewing the film – “do I need to see any of the four recent takes on Churchill, and if so, am I allowed to compare those to Gary Oldman’s portrayal?”
We will get to that.
This film doesn’t cover Churchill’s entire WW2 experience, just the weeks between his elevation to the Prime Minister post on May 10, 1940 in the height of the failing Battle of France, to the evacuation of English troops from Dunkirk, a few weeks later. Tough way to start a job.
The film, starring Gary Oldman as Churchill, Kristin Scott Thomas as Clemmie Churchill, and Ben Mendelsohn as King George, opens on a heated Parliamentary debate. With papers flying and theatrical lighting , we are witnessing the demise of Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain (Ronald Pickup), and in the next scene, a gentlemanly but intense dinner meeting, the decision is made to put the firebrand Winston Churchill into the somewhat no-win position of Chamberlain’s successor. The assembled uppercrust politicians all expect him to fail.
It is then that we see the great man for the first time in the movie. If the angles and slow-mos of that first oratory fight in Parliament was not your tip off that this film was going for epic, we meet our hero as he is sitting in a corner, in the dark, and then he lights up a cigar, thus we see the familiar jowls, and we know he is here, here, to save the world. One of the problems about to become evident is that Churchill starts as, and never stops being, a character, an icon, more than a man.
He shouts! He drinks! He gruffly points out the obvious! He scares and weirds out his newly appointed private secretary, a fresh-faced girl called Elizabeth, played by Lily James in full blush-and-stammer mode. Churchill sends a lot of letters and telegrams from his residence, and they need to be quickly typed, edited and dispatched occasionally from his bath. Those scenes give us Elizabeth’s view of Churchill as a blowhard eccentric shouting from his tub, which makes her bolt. As the only main character under 50, we can quickly suss out that Elizabeth will -and must- quickly come back, and will represent the voice of the People, the real girl with a real sweetheart to lose, the one who must be convinced that these superior and wound-tight men are doing the right thing. Naturally Churchill will take the time out of his running of the country to personally do just that.
Any movie that accurately shows the basement bunker, 24-hour pressure cooker of the War Offices is fascinating, and when you settle in to those parts of this mostly well made film, get into the mindset of the terrifying unknown, and start to actually marvel that there is any way these ordinary people, with their pinned maps, their lack of sleep, their constantly typing secretaries, can pull this mission off, that’s when the movie excels.
Darkest Hour and Dunkirk
The big issue that Wright’s film focuses on is the Dunkirk evacuation, and here is where having seen the Nolan movie really benefits anyone with holes in their education. (Read: most of us) The writing in these scenes is trapped between not wanting to dumb-splain the situation at hand and assuming audiences know how critical this first big military decision placed on the shoulders of the new PM actually was. So here is where a bit of extra knowledge helps, especially for – I’ll say it – American audiences not as familiar with this critical pre-Pearl Harbor point in the war; and coming into the narrative with supplementary knowledge (albeit cinematic) of a crucial battle that we didn’t learn too much about in history class is really helpful, intellectually, and as a viewer, intriguing. Much like a Hamlet scholar seeing Rosencrantz and Guilderstern are Dead would gain perspective, or how a Wizard of Oz fan might feel if the musical Wicked was any good.
Darkest Hour Review: Best Picture?
So you’ll enjoy the tension in the war room scenes, even knowing the outcome. Here’s what you won’t like as much. As I noted, some visual effort is made to highlight the living legend that we are meeting. He’s staged as an outlier in his own space, larger than life, the biggest man in the room, or the dunce in the corner, depending on Wright’s needs. The supplementary scenes, outside of the military HQ, that serve to portray the human behind the cigar are directed in an almost comedic way – the early scene with his daughters to toast his rise to power, or with typist Elizabeth, whom he finds the time to bring into the the heart of the strategy room to explain himself. The worst is when the script puts him stumbling onto the Underground with “ordinary people” who, after a series of, ‘oi, mate, its Winston blinking Churchill, it is!”, gather together to help him make a massive strategic decision. This is cringeworthy.
The only character making Winston Churchill a proper human is his wife, the much-biographied powerhouse in her own right, Clemmie Churchill. As portrayed by the always great Kristin Scott Thomas, she is luminous, knowing and strong, and their scenes together have a lot of chemistry, but the way this picture is structured, it is a one man show, and no matter how fab the costumes and how razor-sharp the reactions from KST, this story is about Winston.
So. Gary Oldman. Nominated for every single award going, if you haven’t heard, and as we post this, the hot favorite to win an Oscar. Love, love, love Gary Oldman, as Sid Vicious, as George Smiley, as Beethoven. He can do anything. Much has been made of the “amazing” prosthetics that totally transformed the actor, how it makes him inhabit this part, but… ermmm… but, not to be a jerk, but we live in a day of great makeup, CGI and special effect works that have wowed us. Gary Oldman has been transforming since Betamax was in your house. It’s what he does. Did he look like Winston Churchill? You be the judge
Good enough, in these hastily sourced photos. In Darkest Hour, I remained aware of the physical change, and couldn’t ever escape the difference in the eyes, between Oldman and Churchill, nothing the actor could have changed. I never thought he disappeared. There are actors cast as famous people where they don’t have the most amazing physical similarity, and yet, they capture the spirit of the role, of the person. Michelle Williams as Marilyn Monroe in My Week With Marilyn comes to mind, the physical similarities aren’t strong but damn if she didn’t nail it. It’s not all about prosthetics.
Well of course, except Joseph Fiennes as Michael Jackson
but back on point, as a fan of Gary Oldman from way back, was this a phenomenal performance? Yes. He rose above the makeup, the reverential direction and the silly setpieces. He was brilliant. Was he the best Churchill of the year, since there were a few? Not in my estimation. See Brian Cox in the simply titled, Churchill. See Brian Cox in everything.
Coming in third, John Lithgow as Churchill in The Crown; he was great as well, but that performance seemed more of a surprise, as we all feel comfy as Lithgow being our lovable American bachelor uncle. Cox slipped into the character, and I never thought, wow, great makeup! I just got on with the story, but that is the lot of the criminally underappreciated Cox. Gary Oldman was great in Darkest Hour, but, getting back to the idea of knowing little going in, maybe I’d prefer a performance that doesn’t demand me to be in awe of the physical effects? Maybe we hold off on the Emma Watson as Mother Theresa biopic?
Is this movie worthy of a Best Picture nod? I’d say no, not really. It does nothing new with heady material, and as its symbiotic partner Dunkirk is there in the voting to be compared… ahh, didn’t love that one, either, but with ten Oscar slots open… I had to think what I’d replace it with. First two thoughts, it is less deserving than The Big Sick, for sure, a movie I wanted to recommend on my way out, and maybe, maybe Lady Macbeth? Darkest Hour ticks the boxes of what is “Oscar bait”, great transformative lead role, historically significant story, British. But ultimately this film is all cigar, not so much substance.
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A former ABC National, Dallas and Atlanta radio personality, Martina O'Boyle is now making movies and covering culture in London, Dublin, and as far in Europe as the cheapie flights will take her, for Pop Culture Beast.