Netflix UK film review: Darkest Hour
Ivan Radford | On 27, May 2018Reading time: 4 mins
Director: Joe Wright
Cast: Gary Oldman, Lily James, Kristin Scott Thomas
Watch Darkest Hour online in the UK: Netflix UK / iTunes / Prime Video (Buy/Rent) / TalkTalk TV / Rakuten TV / Google Play / Sky Store
Gary Oldman is one of Britain’s most recognisable character actors. From his violent turn in Leon and colourful villain in The Fifth Element to his grounded, gentle Commissioner Gordon in The Dark Knight, he’s been a familiar stalwart of UK screens for decades. It’s perhaps only in recent years that he’s really had the chance to flex his versatile muscles, with his understated turn in Tomas Alfredson’s Tinker Tailor Solder Spy. Now, Darkest Hour sees him deliver a career-best performance, one in which he’s not only remarkable: he’s completely unrecognisable.
The film joins a long line of biopics of Winston Churchill, with everyone from Brian Cox to Michael Gambon taking on the jowly frame of the iconic Prime Minister. Most memorable of all is John Lithgow’s portrayal in The Crown, which unearthed the fragile man beneath the imposing facade. Darkest Hour manages the same feat in only a couple of hours, showing us the vulnerable side of the feisty PM that is normally hidden by the news headlines of history.
Anthony McCarten’s script achieves this by zeroing in on Churchill’s early days in power, when he was only elected in as party leader because his criss-crossing over party lines over the years meant that he was a more amenable figure for the opposition to swallow – and therefore the ideal candidate to lead a shaky alliance between them all. A coalition government during a national crisis of confidence and tensions overseas? McCarten doesn’t shy away from the relevance of WWII-era Britain, bringing it to life with the kind of political plotting and backstabbing that we’re more used to seeing in House of Cards than a stuffy period drama. And so we see him shakily navigate the waters left by retiring PM Neville Chamberlain (Ronald Pickup), populated by Stephen Dillane’s Viscount Halifax and Samuel West’s Sir Anthony Edem, and overseen by the cool-headed King George (Ben Mendelsohn, enjoying a chance not to play the bad guy).
That focus on the political trials of heading up the country means that we don’t get too see as much as we’d like of Churchill’s wife, Clementine, although Kristin Scott Thomas makes a strong impact in the scenes that do feature her – and leaves Lily James having to work hard to make more of her role as young secretary Elizabeth Layton, a rare friendly ear in a hostile cabinet. It’s testament to both James and Thomas that their presence only highlights the lack of eloquence and abundance of indecision that cripples Winston – qualities that have long since been eclipsed by his memorable speeches.
It’s only a few months since we last heard that speech delivered at the close of Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk, a visceral retelling of Churchill’s unprecedented emergency evacuation that could easily have overshadowed this more subdued effort. It’s credit to director Joe Wright that this isn’t the case. Having already captured the horror of Dunkirk in his stunning four-minute tracking shot in Atonement, Wright instead settles to stay on the British side of the Channel and build tension in other ways, from big on-screen letters that tick down the days until Operation Dynamo unfolds to Dario Maranelli’s marching score. He shoots the House of Commons with an almost painterly, or period photographer’s eye, using deep contrasts to place Churchill inside a dark frame, his signature cigar a sole source of light to bring us out of the black-and-white shadows. Then, he soars into the sky to shoot both the bomb-strewn conflict and Churchill’s life from above – a zoomed-out perspective that visibly dwarves the man against the expansive tide of history.
There are some indulgences that threaten to disrupt Wright’s classy air, most notably a sequence on a Tube carriage, which sees Winston talk to a dramatically convenient cross-section of society with toxic levels of cheese. Thank goodness, then, that Oldman is there to prevent any stodgy loss of momentum, his compelling presence stabling the ship so that it can KBO. Kazuhiro Tsuji’s Oscar-winning prosthetics are a marvel, but Oldman moves beyond mere mimicry to tease out the stumbling, nervous, insecure man under that surface, delivering Churchill’s impassioned addresses with a conviction that will stir the heart of even the least patriotic Briton. As a political biopic, this is a cliched but cinematic affair. As a showcase for Gary Oldman, it’s something of a national treasure.
Darkest Hour is available on Netflix UK, as part of an £8.99 monthly subscription.