Darkest Hour, a historical drama by acclaimed filmmaker Joe Wright, shows how Winston Churchill galvanized the British to fight against Nazi Germany.
Though based on fact, the film runs like a political thriller chronicling Churchill’s controversial decision to send England to a perilous war.
In the spring of 1940, the West was losing the war against Germany. The Nazis had invaded Belgium and France, and Britain was on the verge of capitulating.
As the British forces were cornered in the French coastal town of Dunkirk, the British Parliament replaced Conservative Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain, known for his appeasement policy toward Adolf Hitler, with Winston Churchill who advocated war against the Nazis.
Churchill’s impulsive, forceful and explosive personality did not win him many friends. But the film Darkest Hour reveals his qualities as a ferocious leader, who acknowledged his fears and battled his uncertainties while rallying England against the Nazis.
It was Churchill’s humility that most appealed to Wright.
“For me, it was the element of doubt,” the filmmaker said. “The idea that his doubt was a key element to the attainment of wisdom. I found that a really interesting idea.”
Wright builds the film around that doubt, putting his audience right in the middle of that decision, as opposed to looking at the statesman’s actions through history’s 20/20 vision.
Lead actor Gary Oldman felt that Churchill’s appeal lay in his volatility.
“It was the highs and the lows, the extremes of what [screenwriter] Anthony [McCarten] presented,” Oldman said. “Oddly, for such a verbose film, still my favorite scene in the movie … was when Churchill is walking down the corridor and hears Hitler and he doubles back and he closes the door on Hitler. It’s my favorite scene. No words. That says so much about him and his character.”
Oldman offers a tour de force performance as Churchill.
He says, though, that he had misgivings about accepting the role of a much physically larger character, and he did not want to put on 50 or 60 extra pounds.
“I mean, I am nearly 60 years old and I really did not want to mess with my metabolism,” Oldman said. “It would take the rest of my life, I think, to take it off. So, the only way to go was the prosthetic way, but we got a wonderful prosthetic makeup artist and hair designer, Kazuhiro Tsuji. It was daunting at first, and I said ‘no’ to it several times, but I’m mostly glad in the end I said ‘yes.'”
Unlike some of his predecessors, who portrayed Churchill as a curmudgeon and a heavy brooding man, Oldman expressed a lighter, wittier Churchill, albeit impatient with his loyal secretary Elizabeth, played by Lily James, and petulant with his wife, Clementine, played by Kristin Scott Thomas.
“I studied the footage, and what started to emerge was this rather vital cherubic, cheeky man who was just dynamic and full of life, charismatic and funny,” Oldman said.
While watching Darkest Hour, one experiences the risks Churchill and, by extension, Britain took fighting in what it seemed at the time to be an almost futile war against tyranny. The film is an important one, both for its historic value and cinematic depth, as well as its message that democracy should be defended at any cost.