Winston Churchill died 100 years after Abraham Lincoln. In the United Kingdom, the Prime Minister is now regarded as one of, if not thee nation’s most revered leaders in perilous times. Like Lincoln. And like Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln from 2012, Joe Wright’s Darkest Hour focuses on a short period when both men’s leadership abilities were put to their most strenuous tests. Lincoln featured Daniel Day-Lewis embodying the 16th President of the United States in memorable and Oscar-winning fashion. Hour has Gary Oldman with an equally towering performance that is also barreling toward Academy gold.
The picture takes place in May 1940 as Churchill becomes the doubted but consensus choice to succeed Neville Chamberlain as PM of England. He’s known as much if not more for his failures in previous offices than his successes. Churchill enters the position at a precarious moment for the country. Hitler is on the march, conquering European countries with sights set on England. King George VI (Ben Mendelsohn) is suspicious of the new leader. Office holders, especially Lord Halifax (Stephen Dillane), are pleading for Churchill to cut a deal with the Nazi Party.
It is Churchill’s instinct to fight on the battlefield and with his detractors. He gets support from his wife Clementine (Kristin Scott Thomas). His historic decision-making and speech dictation is witnessed by new personal secretary Elizabeth (Lily James). The key choices he must make involve Operation Dynamo, which was just chronicled in Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk.
Oldman, buried under impressive makeup that render him barely recognizable, excels in making Churchill a force of nature. We’ve seen Oldman’s chameleon like abilities to disappear into a character before and it’s on full display here. The Prime Minister’s boozing and oratory prowess and connection to his countrymen are also displayed. The supporting players are all just fine, if understandably relegated to the sideline in favor of a far larger personality. Those in Churchill’s orbit probably came to realize they were part of his show. Same here with Mr. Oldman.
Darkest Hour doesn’t quite reach the heights of dramatic impact as the films mentioned from Spielberg and Nolan. It is, however, a well-crafted tale of leading with gut and gusto at a juncture when it was needed and with Oldman spearheading the eventual charge to victory.
*** (out of four)