ReelBob: ‘Darkest Hour’ ★★★
By Bob Bloom
“Darkest Hour” is a David-and-Goliath historical drama in which the British government is Goliath and a force-of-nature Winston Churchill is a take-no-prisoners David.
Gary Oldman gives one of the finest performances of his long and colorful career as the blood-and-thunder master politician, reluctantly appointed Great Britain’s prime minister in the early days of World War II, when the island nation virtually stood alone against the onslaught of a massive German army that was easily crushing the European mainland.
The movie, directed by Joe Wright from a screenplay by Anthony McCarten, covers the early days of Churchill’s time in office, from his appointment in early May 1940 to the “miracle of Dunkirk” in early June.
The movie’s major premise is Churchill’s adamant refusal of any peace negotiations with Hitler’s Nazi Germany, despite pressure from his own party to do so, and the threat of an imminent invasion by the armies of the Third Reich.
After all, it was Churchill’s predecessor, Neville Chamberlain, whose failed policy of appeasement, did not deter Hitler from invading Poland, thus initiating WWII.
Still, many members of Churchill’s party wanted to negotiate with the German leader in hopes of saving the British Empire.
Churchill was one of the few who saw Hitler for what he was: a madman who could not be trusted to honor any treaty and who was a threat to all of mankind.
The strength of Oldman’s performance is in his displaying the doubts and vulnerability of Churchill, who knew from the outset that the leaders of his own party and even his king, George VI, did not want him in office.
By showing Churchill’s fears and anxieties, Oldman elevates the man from a two-dimensional historical figure to a flawed human being, who mustered the courage to meet a great and grave challenge that could alter the course of history.
And Oldman’s delivery of Churchill’s inspiring speeches is phenomenal. It almost makes you want to stand up and cheer when he finishes.
McCarten’s script only falters in presenting Churchill’s political rivals, Chamberlain (Ronald Pickup) and Viscount Halifax (Stephen Dillane). Both are more cardboard antagonists than fully dimensional and fleshed-out characters.
Also, a sequence in which Churchill rides the underground to Westminster Abbey to gather the pulse of the common Britons feels like a cinematic contrivance.
Ben Mendelsohn as King George VI gives a quiet performance as a sovereign, who, at first, lacks confidence and dislikes the new prime minister, but gradually comes to realize that his strength and determination are what his people need for inspiration.
Kristen Scott Thomas as Clementine Churchill, Winston’s steadfast wife, is his muse, the one who continually helps him tamp down his self-doubts and rekindle his confidence and determination that the course he has chosen is the correct one.
Wright’s film, paired with Christopher Nolan’s “Dunkirk” from earlier this year, would make an interesting counterpoint, viewing the same piece of history from differing perspectives.
While Nolan’s movie is about the power of courage and brotherhood, Wright’s feature is about the impact of oratory and how the precise combination of words and phrases can rally a nation and its citizens, despite a bleak and perilous future.
“Darkest Hour” should garner Oldman a much-deserved Academy Award nomination. His Churchill inspires because it shows a man overcoming his demons and fears to unite a nation on the verge of possible annihilation.
I am a member of the Indiana Film Journalists Association. My reviews appear at ReelBob (reelbob.com) and Rottentomatoes (www.rottentomatoes.com). I also review Blu-rays and DVDs. I can be reached by email at email@example.com or on Twitter @ReelBobBloom. Links to my reviews can be found on Facebook, Twitter, Google+ and LinkedIn.
(PG-13), mature themes, disturbing images