Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk provided audiences with a gripping look at one of the most harrowing moments of World War II, told from the perspective of those closest to the struggle. Conversely, Darkest Hour gives us a glimpse into another aspect of this same conflict, following newly appointed Prime Minister Winston Churchill (Gary Oldman) as he navigates treacherous political waters and rapidly waning support during his first month in office, culminating with the evacuation depicted in Nolan’s film.
Churchill is immediately faced with opposition, as Viscount Halifax (Stephen Dillane) and other members of the War Council urge him to enlist Mussolini in brokering a peace between the advancing German forces. Churchill is aghast at the notion, and despite the memory of the losses suffered during The Great War, vows to keep fighting “at any cost.” His refusal to consider other options quickly finds him at odds with both political parties, and attempts to curry favor with King George (Ben Mendelsohn) are met with disdain, but Churchill is nothing is not resilient – or perhaps just stubborn.
Unrecognizable beneath a heavy layer of makeup and prosthetics, Oldman plays Churchill with an energy and zest that seems at odds with other cinematic portrayals, mining an unexpected amount of humor from the Prime Minister’s ill temperament. That Churchill wasn’t the most popular choice isn’t lost on the man himself, and although he’s eager to shoulder the massive responsibility that comes with the office, he’s well aware that his political rivals are chortling in the shadows. “I’m getting the job because the ship is sinking,” he grouses, puffing on a cigar and cradling a glass of Scotch. “It’s revenge.”
Notwithstanding his reputation as a capable strategist and legendary public speaker, Darkest Hour delves into Churchill’s insecurities: he grapples constantly with decisions both crucial and mundane, and frets endlessly over speeches that he dictates to his anxious young secretary (Lily James). He’s also short of temper and has a tendency to let anger get the best of him, a flaw which his wife (Kristin Scott Thomas) is all too quick to point out. “You’ve become rough and sarcastic and rude,” she admonishes him, with a fair amount of affection in her voice.
Director Joe Wright opts for a desaturated, high-contrast aesthetic that leaves Darkest Hour feeling like a stunningly gorgeous stage play – which is fitting, since the screenplay by Anthony McCarten is chock full of lengthy monologues, none of them delivered with more thunderous vigor than by Oldman. The film may lack the emotional heft of Dunkirk, but makes for a damn fine companion piece, and Oldman’s performance is one of year’s best.