In an age when the world seems to have lost all faith its political leaders, perhaps it’s no surprise that figures like Winston Churchill are being looked to for guidance. Known for his stoicism and resilience, the former Prime Minister of the United Kingdom has come to exemplify the values that make Britain great, and make for a fascinating protagonist.
In May of 1940, Europe was on the brink of collapsing to Adolf Hitler’s Nazi rule, with countless nations falling to his oppressive regime. France is mere days away from being occupied, with a proceeding invasion of Britain all but inevitable. To ensure that doesn’t happen, the Prime Minister of the day, Neville Chamberlain (Ronald Pickup) has been seeking to negotiate a peace treaty with Hitler, hopeful that his remaining years won’t be spent in wartime.
Unhappy with Chamberlain’s plans, and his leadership in general, the opposing Labour party puts forward a Motion of No Confidence in the Prime Minister, and demands that a successor be appointed. Chamberlain duly resigns from his position, and recommends that Churchill (Gary “Sirius” Oldman) take his place – a move that pleases those in opposition, but does little to appease those in his own Conservative party.
One of the criticisms levelled at Churchill, by both his colleagues and commentators, was his unbecoming temperament. Stubborn and self-adsorbed, he was far from the calm, dignified leader that the Conservatives sought, and seen as unfit to lead Britain through a period of war. Darkest Hour does not shy away from this fact; nor, for that matter, does it ignore his familial troubles, openly addressing his lavish spending and absent parenting.
Yet this is not a film made to dwell on Winston’s shortcomings, as it would rather bask in in his more positive traits. Darkest Hour portrays Churchill as a person who commands, and demands, respect – from the moment somebody is within earshot, he expects them to listen; when delivering speeches in parliament, he does so with a proud, booming voice. In addition to being a superb orator, he’s also a master of linguistics, constructing his speeches much like a poet would.
All these factors make Churchill a fascinating character to watch, partially because there are so few politicians like him these days. And as the man tasked with bringing this character to life, Gary Oldman is utterly brilliant. Much like Churchill himself, it’s a very compelling, powerful performance, and one gets a sense of that just from watching the trailers. Truly, so perfect is Oldman’s performance that no amount of hyperbole can do him justice.
To make that performance more believable, the film-makers had to ensure that Oldman shared a physical resemblance with England’s fabled leader – a difficult task, given that Oldman is neither bald nor stout. This was made possible through the services of Kazahiro Tsuji, a famed make-up artist who was coaxed out of retirement by Oldman himself. Those efforts were definitely worth it, because Tsuji’s prosthetics look so realistic that they have practically transformed Oldman into Churchill.
Aside from these extraordinary elements, Darkest Hour is a very tame film, as its PG rating will attest. With little blasphemy, no graphic war footage and little negative commentary on its main subject, this isn’t a film that pushes the narrative boundaries, possibly so it can find a mainstream audience. While there’s nothing wrong with entertaining the masses, this approach will disappoint those hoping for a more nuanced, stimulating portrait of the period, who are best served looking elsewhere.
If the aim of Darkest Hour was to make Winston Churchill an even greater figure of admiration, then it most certainly has succeeded – Gary Oldman brings the character to life like no other actor before him, providing a gravitas so often lacking in contemporary politicians. As a political drama though, there’s plenty that could be improved.