Not buggering it up.
As Doctor Who repeatedly points out, time is most definitely a tricksy thing. As I think I’ve commented on before, the events of 1940-45 are not in my lifetime but were sufficiently fresh to my parents that they were still actively talked about… so they still appear “current” to me. But I find it astonishing to realize that to a teen viewer this film is equivalent in timeframe to the sinking of the Titanic! #ancienthistory! So I suspect your connection to this film will be strongly affected by your age, and that was definitely reflected in the average age at my showing which must have been at least 60.
It’s 1940 and Western Europe is under siege. Neville Chamberlain (Ronald Pickup, “The Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel“) is the Conservative Prime Minister but is voted out of office in an attempt to form a grand coalition government with Labour leader Clement Atlee (David Schofield). Despite appearing a shoe-in for the role, Viscount Halifax (Stephen Dillane) turns it down, thinking that his alternative (and bête noire) would drink from the poisoned chalice and be quickly be out of his (and Chamberlain’s) hair. For that alternative choice is the volatile and unpredictable Churchill (Gary Oldman), grudgingly invited into the job by King George VI (Ben Mendelsohn, “Rogue One“). With the Nazi’s bearing down on the 300,000 encircled troops at Dunkirk, and with calls from his war cabinet to capitulate and seek terms of settlement, this is indeed both Churchill’s, and the country’s, ‘darkest hour’.
Despite the woeful lack of historical knowledge among today’s youngsters, most will be at least aware of the story of Dunkirk, with many having absorbed Christopher Nolan’s film of last summer. This film is almost the matching bookend to that film, showing the terrifying behind-closed-door events that led up to that miracle. For it was terrifying seeing how close Britain came to the brink, and I’m not sure even I really appreciated that before. While this might have been a “thriller” if it had been a fictional story, we well know the outcome of the story: but even with this knowledge I still found the film to be extremely tense and claustrophobic as the net draws in around Churchill’s firmly-held beliefs.
Gary Oldman’s performance is extraordinary, and his award nominations are well-deserved. We have grown so used to some of his more over-the-top Russian portrayals in films like “Air Force One” and last year’s (pretty poor) “The Hitman’s Bodyguard” that it is easy to forget what a nuanced and flexible actor he is. Ever since that “No, surely not!” moment of that first glimpse of the film’s trailer, it has almost been impossible to ‘see’ Oldman behind the brilliant make-up of the character (Kazuhiro Tsuji gets a special credit for it). But his eyes are in there, and there are some extreme close-ups (for example, during a bizarre and tense phone call with Roosevelt (David Strathairn)) when you suddenly see “There you are!”.
While I have nothing against Brian Cox as an actor, I far prefer the portrayal of Churchill on show here compared to last year’s “Churchill“: true that that film was set three or four stressful years later, but Cox’s Churchill was portrayed as an incompetent fool, an embarrassment to the establishment that have to work around him. Oldman’s Churchill is irascible, unreasonable, but undeniably a leader and a great orator.
Mirroring “Churchill” though, the action is seen through the eyes of Churchill’s put-upon secretary, here played delightfully by Lily James (“Downton Abbey”, “Baby Driver“) who perfectly looks and sounds the part. The character is more successful than that of Ella Purnell’s Garrett in that she is given more room to develop her character and for the audience to warm to her. Oldman is getting all the kudos, but Lily James really deserves some for her touching and engaging performance here.
Also in Oldman’s shadow is the always marvelous Kristin Scott Thomas (“Four Weddings and a Funeral”, “The English Patient”) as Clemmie Churchill, expressing all the love and frustration associated with being a long-suffering wife to an over-worked husband in the public service.
At the pen is “The Theory of Everything” writer Anthony McCarten, and I’d like to say its a great script but with most of the best lines (“a sheep in sheep’s clothing” – LoL) coming from Winston himself it’s difficult to tell. Some of the scenes can get a bit laborious and at 125 minutes – though not long by any means – the script could still perhaps have had a nip and tuck here and there.
Where some of this time is well spent though is in some sedate shots of London street life, across two separate scenes panning across everyday folk as the stresses of war start to become more evident. This is just one of the areas where director Joe Wright (“Atonement”, “Pride and Prejudice”) shows considerable panache, ably assisted by the cinematography of Bruno Delbonnel (“Inside Llewyn Davis“): a boy closes his telescope-fingers around Churchill’s plane; a bomb’s eye-view of the beleaguered Brigadier Nicholson in Calais; and – very impressively – the smoky imperiousness of the House of Commons set.
And most-importantly Wright delivers what Christopher Nolan couldn’t deliver in “Dunkirk“: a properly CGI’d vista of hundred of small boats crossing the channel to Dunkirk. Now THAT is a scene that Kenneth Branagh could justly have looked in awe at!!!
There are a number of scenes that require disbelief to be suspended though: the biggest one being a tube train ride – very moving and effective I must say – but one that features the longest journey between any two stations on the District Line than has ever been experienced!
So this is a great film for really reliving a knife-edge moment in British history, and is highly recommended particularly for older viewers. If I’m honest though, between “Darkest Hour”, “Churchill” and John Lithgow’s excellent portrayal in “The Crown” I’m all over portrayals of the great man for a few years. Can we please move on now Hollywood?
(I think I’ve been a bit mean with this scoring at FFFf, so I’m post-publish upgrading it a notch).
Fad Rating: FFFF.