Courtney Howard is a LAFCA, OFCS and AWFJ member, as well as a Rotten Tomatometer-approved film critic. Her work has been published on Variety, She Knows and Awards Circuit.
Courtney Howard // Film Critic
DARKEST HOUR is a misleading title. It’s really the darkest month that we spend watching a man transform into a legend. Director Joe Wright’s historical biopic on Winston Churchill’s first few weeks as England’s Prime Minister is less daring than ANNA KARENINA and ATONEMENT, but just as bold stylistically. Rousing, riveting and triumphant, this portrait of a hero is electrifying in terms of the genre and the awards season rush.
Wright establishes the mood of each cinematic chapter through date-stamped title cards. It’s May 1940, and Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain (Ronald Pickup) is under intense pressure to resign. A call for a new leader has been sent out. However, when the top pick is reticent to accept the role, it’s Winston Churchill (Gary Oldman) to the rescue. His demanding reputation precedes him, and his long-suffering, angelic wife Clementine (Kristin Scott Thomas) is keen on making him more likeable. He has a scotch and cigar to begin the day! He naps in the afternoon and works late! He mumbles and micromanages! King George VI (Ben Mendelsohn) doesn’t particularly like or respect him. Neither do the other members of the House of Commons – verbally combative adversaries who spread gossip like bored, Southern housewives. If it’s not Hitler threatening to mar Churchill’s first month in command, it’s those in his war cabinet – people like Chamberlain and Viscount Halifax (Stephen Dillane).
Screenwriter Anthony McCarten (THE THEORY OF EVERYTHING) does a great job adapting history into an engaging, immersive hero’s journey that explores the pivotal leader’s psyche. To keep the meaty entree from being overloaded with the flavor of stuffy pathos and gravitas, the practically-trademarked British dry wit is peppered throughout, perfectly seasoning the dish. Narrative beats aren’t predictable as in many other biopics of this ilk (I’m looking right at you LINCOLN). The re-creation of Churchill’s infamous “V for Victory” photo rises above homage as it furthers the character, capturing his cheeky side. Even if you’re not a history buff, the story remains completely accessible to the audience. It’s fun to spot the ties to THE KING’S SPEECH (with the inclusion of the formerly stuttering King) and DUNKIRK (showing the logistical challenge facing Churchill).
More than half of the film’s success is due to the dynamic performance by Oldman. His character introduction is similar to that of a stage curtain opening on the lead, sitting in the dark as his staff opens the blinds on him eating breakfast in bed. His work goes beyond the superficial, traveling underneath the very well-executed prosthetics and fat suit (as opposed to Anthony Hopkins’ appearance in HITCHCOCK), nailing the figurehead’s inner-drive. His physicality is also a subtle layer – like he’s got the weight of the world on his shoulders. His scenes with Thomas are effervescent as their chemistry is perfection. His performance is a triumph for transformative, chameleon-like actors.
Wright, in conjunction with Bruno Delbonnel’s exquisite cinematography, makes sure to deliver on the aesthetics of each scene, and these auteurs pump up the visuals. Allegories abound. Early on, the ways in which characters are illuminated by effused light pouring in through the windows speaks volumes. Clementine is angelic, introduced in all white, surrounded by light as she’s Churchill’s light in the dark. He too gets the spotlight treatment when taking the floor of the House of Commons as soon he will be the light in their dark. The camera takes a “God’s eye” perspective – like in the staircase workers ascend, or Churchill’s plane flying above a decimated French battlefield. In one sequence, the camera ascends, indicating a soldier’s hope for rescue, and, just as quickly, descends when a bomb is dropped. There’s also a haunting establishing shot of a parked airplane almost enveloped by the fog, signifying the fog of wartime politics. In the third act, Churchill’s feeling of being boxed in pervades, indicated by shots through small square windows, an elevator surrounded by darkness, and a cramped phone closet where he’s relegated to one-third of the widescreen ratio.
That said, there are a few bumps along this journey. There are a few lulls in the narrative momentum. It rehashes what’s happening when we’re clear what’s at stake. This screen time should have been allotted to strengthening the arcs of the female characters. Lily James, who is incandescent in everything she’s in, is relegated to a tertiary role as Churchill’s nervous secretary – odd given that our main character is introduced through her. She doesn’t have much of an arc either. At least there’s one scene where she shines as bright as the material affords her. Thomas too is dealt a soft character journey, but, much like James, she radiates and makes the most out of her far-too-brief screen time. You could make the excuse this isn’t their film, that it belongs to Oldman, and that adding more to the others would just add to the run time. However, there are ways to better utilize the time already given.
Despite these minor gripes, seeing a true leader, one who’s not a mass of pure ego, guide a nation through crisis is a heartening feeling. It’s only when you leave the theater that the reality of an iconic figurehead, who finds resolute courage and strength through his constituency, feels like a fantasy in these dark political times.
DARKEST HOUR opens on November 22.