Darkest Hour – movie review

by Russell Baillie / 26 January, 2018
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Gary Oldman delivers a thunderous, noisy, thrilling Churchill.

We first see the star of Darkest Hour as he lights a morning cigar while still in bed. The flare of the match illuminates a pale moon of a face that will be rarely out of shot in the following two hours.

It might be firing up a nicotine breakfast, but that match also lights the fuse on the sparkling, thunderous, noisy, thrilling firework of a performance that is Gary Oldman’s portrayal of Winston Churchill.

It’s hardly the first time the iconic Briton has been brought to life on screen. But it’s likely to sit at the top of this particular premier league, well, forever.

Yes, the make-up is great: even before the character begins to take hold, the Churchill of Darkest Hour has started to compete in the memory with your recall of what the real one looked like. And once the portrayal does kick in – as the film begins to skip nimbly between the backstage curmudgeon and the playing-to-the-galleries politician – it makes for a film of exciting immediacy.

Another historic great-man biopic, of sorts, it focuses on the pivotal weeks in mid-1940, when Churchill took over as Prime Minister from an ailing Neville Chamberlain, after Hitler’s blitzkrieg had claimed much of Europe, pushing the British army to Dunkirk. It was a short period in which Churchill delivered many of the classic speeches of which American broadcaster Edward R Murrow would later say, “He mobilised the English language and sent it into battle.”

But this doesn’t feel like something sprung from the archives or imitation intended as the sincerest form of flattery. He’s a living, smoke-puffing, table-thumping incarnation that’s as good as movie replications of real figures get. And he’s ably supported: Kristin Scott Thomas as Winston’s wife, Clementine, becomes an intriguing, fully realised character in her few scenes; the unlikely figure of Australian Ben Mendelsohn is terrific as an aloof King George, whose audiences with the Prime Minister are an odd-couple delight; and as Lord Halifax, the Foreign Secretary who butted heads with Churchill over a negotiated peace with Hitler, Stephen Dillane deserves an Order of the Plum for his services to upper-class accents – especially for how he delivers that Murrow line as a concession of defeat after Churchill’s “fight them on the beaches” address.

New Zealander Anthony McCarten follows his acclaimed Stephen Hawking drama The Theory of Everything with a screenplay that neatly weaves history into the drama without expository overkill.

And if you can fair smell the dust in its corridors of power, the film is kept urgent and rollicking along by director Joe Wright, a visual stylist whose past work included a memorable visit to the Dunkirk evacuation in Atonement.

Here, Dunkirk is only discussed. Other than during some brief forays to France, the film exists mostly in a collection of rooms within and below Westminster, which can give it a stagey feel and some parts work better than others.

In one scene, Churchill is in his underground privy, talking to President Franklin D Roosevelt on the phone. He desperately pleads for the US to abandon its neutral stance and support him against Germany. Is it a visual metaphor for a man and his nation deep in the crap? Possibly not. But it’s one of many striking, access-all-areas moments.

It’s certainly more believable than a later scene where Winston travels on the Tube for the first time: there, he encounters citizens whose glowing, poetry-quoting support for fighting the good fight suggests that even if Britain is almost a year into the war, pure cheese is yet to be rationed.

There are other times when Wright delivers only-in-the-movies moments or stylistic flourishes that feel like self-conscious efforts to give this period film a contemporary feel.

Those touches help make Darkest Hour something more than just another Churchill film. But it is the brilliant Oldman who ensures it will go down in history.

IN CINEMAS NOW

★★★★

Video: Universal Pictures NZ

This article was first published in the January 20, 2018 issue of the New Zealand Listener.

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