The time is May 1940. Europe is under assault from Nazi forces and facing imminent defeat. German dictator Adolf Hitler has invaded Czechoslovakia, Poland, Denmark and Norway and he’s beating down on France and Belgium. Britain could be next.
Across the English Channel, Neville Chamberlain (Ronald Pickup) has lost the confidence of the British Parliament and the onerous task of taking up the reins as the new prime minister falls upon Winston Churchill (Gary Oldman). In these early days of World War II, Churchill is faced with the greatest challenge at the time – combating Hitler and his advancing troops.
Thousands of British soldiers are trapped at Dunkirk, and it falls upon Churchill to come up with a unique plan to rescue them – Operation Dynamo, the commissioning of civilian boats to help with the evacuation of soldiers stranded at Dunkirk. In some ways, Joe Wright’s Darkest Hour is a companion piece to Christopher Nolan’s brilliant Dunkirk, though there is no contest when it comes to the more powerful and cinematic storyteller.
“At this critical juncture, we have a drunkard at the wheel,” fumes one of the British ministers referring to Churchill, a man who begins his day with a greasy breakfast washed down with whisky. “He has a hundred ideas a day. Four of them are good, 96 of them dangerous,” says another minister of the cigar-smoking mumbler who was a great orator, nonetheless.
Screenwriter Anthony McCarten has clearly enjoyed showcasing Churchill’s oratory, his wit and the myriad ways in which those around him described him. Wright has made theatre out of the script. The conversations take place in beams of sunlight streaming into panelled rooms, musty corridors, dark, windowless war rooms and at the power centre of the House of Commons. The verbose and manipulative script attempts to humanise Churchill but reeks of manipulation, in particular the fictional scene on the London Underground when Churchill meets with his subjects.
The business-like and statesmanlike Churchill is juxtaposed with the vulnerable husband (to Clemmie, played by Kristen Scott Thomas) and employer (to his secretary Miss Layton, played by Lily James). One of the most neatly arced threads is the changing dynamic between Churchill and King George VI (Ben Mendelsohn). In the war room, the prime minister is battling opposing ideologies represented by Viscount Halifax (Stephen Dillane) who is handed the famous last words: “He mobilised the English language and sent it to battle.” (The original quote is credited to war correspondent Edward R Murrow.)
As the long-suffering wife, Scott Thomas is the perfect foil to Oldman’s huffing and puffing and Churchill’s belligerence. Oldman has already bagged the Golden Globe for his performance, and it is he who elevates Darkest Hour beyond Wright’s stuffy, sluggish and stagy filmmaking into a reflective and passable drama.