Set in the early days of the Second World War, The Darkest Hour sees a newly-elected Winston Churchill take charge of a (so far) ill-managed war as the Nazis steadily take over western Europe. Britain’s newest prime minister must decide whether to negotiate a peace treaty or continue to fight one of the most formidable armies the world has ever seen.
You’ve probably noticed this film doing the rounds, if not for Gary Oldman alone. At the time of writing he has either won or been nominated for just about every award going for his star turn as the legendary Winston Churchill. The list includes the Oscars, Golden Globes and Baftas, among many others. The female casting was also superb, with Lily James (Cinderella) playing a blinder as Churchill’s secretary and Kristen Scott-Thomas giving a stellar performance as Clemmie, Churchill’s wife.
Churchill was a formidable statesman in so many ways, but this film is keen to show his true self with all of his failings. He smoked and drank to excess, but was also arrogant, gruff and disagreeable, characteristics which lost him both friends and allies in politics. It must be said that this is a war film without a huge amount of war in it. And it’s certainly fascinating to see an uncertain Churchill, trying to hold steadfast in the face of what would become the biggest conflict the planet has ever seen - before or since. But the movie also shows that his biggest conflict wasn’t necessarily with Hilter or Mussolini, but with Chamberlain and Lord Halifax who were scheming for a ‘Peace’ Treaty with Germany and all at once trying to undermine Churchill’s parliamentary and cabinet position. Hindsight proved that at least where Hitler was concerned, Churchill knew the cut of his jib.
I saw The Darkest Hour at around the same time as I was watching another great actor - John Lithgow - portray the great man on the Netflix series The Crown. (Which is unmissable, by the way). Lithgow’s Churchill again scored him a clutch of awards and nominations. And while both men gave brilliant performances for such a complex character, Lithgow, for me, had the edge. His performance was softer and showed a more vulnerable side - but then again he was mostly playing the victorious post-war Churchill, who no longer had to stand toe to toe with Adolf Hitler. The only real soft side of Churchill in The Darkest Hour is the scene (which I don’t think is factual) in which he takes to the Tube and touches base with some ‘real life’ folk, if only to justify his own beliefs about going to war. One also feels some sympathy for him in his ‘Black Dog’ moments of depression, however does it make me a bad person if I say he probably shouldn’t have been drinking through those. But who am I to judge, eh?
The film is quite dark – both in name and in content, but also in the cinematography too, and the only way I can describe it is that it feels like the whole thing was filmed with the Instagram Stories ‘New York’ filter. And for someone who enjoys positive and bright art in general, this made me pay attention – art is supposed to stimulate and provoke, right?
Churchill was not a pleasant person up close and that certainly comes across in the film, but like the British public at the time, we are won over by his genius idea of sending civilian boats to Dunkirk to rescue 300,000 British soldiers fleeing the Nazis. This cemented his celebrity and to this day it holds that one of his biggest victories was actually in retreat. I couldn’t help wondering after I had seen the movie, how much more would he have achieved if he hadn’t smoked or drank his way through most of his days?
The Darkest Hour separates the myth from the man in Winston Churchill. Gary Oldman deserves every one of his nominations and I would happily bet he’ll walk away with an Oscar. How could he not, having given us a glimpse at a real titan of the 20th century?