Genuine question: How many films about World War 2 can possibly be made? It feels as though the war has been covered from every angle and perspective imaginable, yet around December/January each year there seems to be a new picture about the conflict and the struggles endured by those who lived through it. Admittedly, having director Joe Wright team up with actor Gary Oldman elevates Darkest Hour to a higher quality than most WW2 dramas, but I found it difficult to shake the feeling that I’d seen much of it before. It doesn’t help that the evacuation of Dunkirk plays a major role in the climax of Wright’s film, which only served to make me think about Nolan’s Dunkirk instead of the images on screen. This exemplifies the problem I have with historical dramas and World War 2 biopics: No matter how well made and performed they seem while watching them, when they’re finished they all just seem like one part of a much larger tale.
Fortunately Wright and Oldman manage to make the story of Darkest Hour feel somewhat fresh through the strength of the expressionistic direction and a commanding performance. Oldman loses himself in the role of Winston Churchill throughout the first month of his role as Prime Minister in a warts-and-all depiction that emphasises his brashness, insecurities, arrogance, and eloquence. Many of Churchill’s iconic speeches are recreated in full, but it’s astonishing how Oldman doesn’t just sound like he’s imitating the originals. Instead he delivers each speech with such emotional conviction that it’s as if we’re hearing them for the first time. It works to strip away the iconic status of a historical figure like Churchill, and enable us to consider him as a man. Wright emphasises Churchill’s sense of isolation over any other quality, with Bruno Delbonnel’s cinematography regularly positioning him boxed into small frames of the screen and surrounded by a black void. Combined with a soundscape that magnifies the impact of each plodding step, the shadowy and ominous look of the Halls of Parliament, and Dario Marianelli’s militaristic soundtrack, it’s hard not to feel the weight of the world on Winston’s shoulders. With the German invasion of Europe getting closer to swallowing Britain each passing day, Churchill’s decisions often mean life or death for British soldiers – and Wright doesn’t shy away from depicting how they impact both the men on the field and the man himself.
Kristen Scott Thomas brings light into the bleakest moments of the picture as Clementine Churchill, who’s unafraid to challenge her husband while recognising what he’s working towards. Thomas does such a fine job of bringing out the tenderness in Oldman’s performance while demonstrating Clementine’s own strength that it’s frustrating how Anthony McCarten’s screenplay prioritises the role of Elizabeth Layton, Churchill’s new secretary, as the one to humanise him. It’s not a flaw in Lily James’ performance, who brings her usual amount of charisma to the lower-class ingénue, but the scenes between Thomas and Oldman demonstrate such a compelling shared history and understanding between the two characters that the relatively new relationship between Layton and Churchill is less investing as a result. A much more interesting partnership is the one that develops between Churchill and King George VI, magnificently portrayed by Ben Mendelsohn. Mendelsohn manages to present George as a man relatively powerless in his new position as King without feeling as though he’s in the shadow of Colin Firth’s Oscar-winning role from 2011’s The King’s Speech, displaying great dignity even while apprehensive of Churchill’s actions.
Yet ultimately the comparisons to other films couldn’t help hanging over Darkest Hour for me, as the events and characters on display have been presented countless times before. Darkest Hour stands on its own merits as a superbly acted and stylishly directed recapturing of one of the most uncertain moments in British history, but the inherent issue with a story so famous is there’s never any uncertainty as to what will happen next. It’s hard to be surprised by something we see recreated year after year.