World War II movies have taken all sorts of forms. While many of them deal with the actual warfare on the battlefield, there have been only a few that look into the decisions behind the scenes like Darkest Hour. Now, just a few months after Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk, we get another look at a similar time around 1940 as the German forces are bearing down on the United Kingdom and newly appointed Prime Minister Winston Churchill (Gary Oldman) has to figure out how to deal with them.
We enter the story with a Churchill who is 66-years-old and mostly bedridden. He meets his new secretary Miss Layton (Lily James), who has been hired to type up whatever thoughts he needs to dictate. At the same time, Neville Chamberlin is retiring as prime minister, and King George VI decides to appoint Churchill in his place, a very unpopular decision among Churchill’s own party and Parliament as a whole.
Obviously there are literally hundreds of stories that could be told from Winston Churchill’s life, but the filmmakers behind Darkest Hour decided to focus specifically on the month of May 1940 when so much was happening and changing, and with the United Kingdom fearing invasion from the unstoppable German army.
British politics and how Parliament works has never been something Americans have full been able to understand, and that won’t be changed by simply watching Darkest Hour, but it’s written in a way that you can understand enough to see what Churchill was going through and why he wasn’t as popular in those days as he later became.
In that sense, Darkest Hour is not only a companion piece of sorts to Dunkirk, but it also acts as a contrast and counterpoint to the German film Downfall.
Very few of Churchill’s colleagues liked him, seeing him as an “actor” who gave these huge overblown speeches and somewhat of a rash warmonger, making a lot of controversial decisions like sending a smaller army troop of 3,000 soldiers to distract the Germans in order to save the 300,000 soldiers stranded on the beach.
You’ll have a hard time finding Gary Oldman within his portrayal of Churchill, as hard as you might try to get through the brilliant make-up that makes him the spitting image of the Prime Minister.
The screenplay by Anthony McCarten is a stellar example of what can be done within historic fiction, as it’s filled with great scenes between Oldman and Ben Mendelsohn as the King, Kristin Scott Thomas as his wife, and the other members of his war cabinet.
Wisely, director Joe Wright doesn’t try to recreate the battle of Dunkirk or the rescues–after all, he already did some of that in Atonement, and the filmmakers possibly knew that Nolan was making that movie anyway. At the same time, Wright has been working up to making a film like this ever since directing Atonement, and he finds a way to make such a talkie movie flow quite smoothly with never a dull moment. Even the few questionable moments that are obviously artistic license rather than actual events are done in a way that feels authentic.
It’s sort of amazing to realize the events of this film take place entirely in a single month, because so much is happening not only on the battlefront but in Churchill’s attempts to fight back against the Germans. It’s equally amazing how the story pulls you in and keeps you invested even if you have absolutely zero interest in British politics or WWII.
Darkest Hour is one of the most amazing films of the year, a true tour de force in terms of the writing, performances (especially Oldman), and Wright’s direction. It’s a film that can surely bear repeat viewings in order to catch more of the nuances, of which there are many.
Darkest Hour opens on Nov. 22. The film is currently playing at the Toronto International Film Festival.
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