Director Joe Wright returns to his period World War II roots of ATONEMENT with a theatrical historical drama set during the first year in office of Sir Winston Churchill (Gary Oldman) as Prime Minister of Britain. The United Kingdom was then on the brink of invasion by Adolf Hitler’s Germany. Wright covered in ATONEMENT the evacuation of troops form Dunkirk, France and in this film covers the same event but from another angle – the difficult planning and fight that championed it. It is in many ways a more difficult endeavour as witnessed in this film, appropriately entitled DARKEST HOUR.
The film opens with the forced resignation of then Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain (Ronald Pickup) less than a year into the war due to his incompetence. Churchill is selected as his only viable replacement despite his controversial career (the most important being the loss thousands of men of men at the Gallipoli War). With British resources dwindling, France having already fallen, and the U.S. not helping much at the time, a contingent led by Foreign Secretary Lord Halifax (Stephen Dillane) pushes hard for peace talks with Hitler.
There is much to enjoy in this feel-good, rouse up ones emotions war drama. Wright provides Churchill a grand theatrical entrance as he is shown first in bed lighting his signature cigar. The film even ends with his most famous speech in the House of Commons (We will fight in the streets, in the hills etc.) Between them, Churchill is shown as a man, supported by his wife, who finally gets the courage to fight for his convictions. His stately residence, the Parliament house, the cabinet rooms all form the mighty props in the grand venture. The cinematography by Bruno Delbonneland with camerawork is superb, mainly of the interior rather than exterior.
Oldman’s performance of Churchill is magnificent. Oldman, looking like Churchill, aided by Kazuhiro Tsuji’s great prosthetics and make-up, goes right into character rather than just impersonating the man. This is an Oscar worthy performance. Other performances are excellent all around with Kristin Scott Thomas making an impression with her little written role of Mrs. Churchill.
The chief complaint of the film is the manipulative segment of Churchill’s ride on the London Underground, where he speaks candidly to a number of tube riders on their view of entering the war. He speaks to a too good to be true assortment of characters – a child, a black, a housewife, the working-class who all are able to voice their opinions (including the child and the black who can quote Shakespeare) too eloquently with the scene ending with Churchill crying into his handkerchief.
DARKEST HOUR is the second film this year with Churchill as the main character, the first one being Jonathan Teplitzky’s CHURCHILL starring Brian Cox. Both films show two different sides Churchill took on the War – the first with Churchill against the Normandy Allied Invasion. Both are worthy war dramas, both worth a look with DARKEST HOUR being the bigger more splashy production.