Although it details events that took place almost eight decades ago, Joe Wright’s nine-Bafta-nominated period drama is eerily reminiscent of today, depicting a Britain torn by division at a time of world crisis and national in-fighting.
A near-perfect companion piece to Christopher Nolan’s terse, elliptical Dunkirk, Wright’s account of the lead-up to the 1940 evacuation not only fills in some of the political background of that now infamous wartime debacle but also reclaims British Prime Minister Winston Churchill from the dusty pages of history books.
It also, for better or for worse, humanises him, depicting the statesman as a political misfit who came to the post of premier as nobody’s first choice, driving a wedge between his own party, the opposition and even the king.
Unusually for a biopic, Darkest Hour doesn’t dramatically over-simplify this scenario. Viewed in the light of the UK’s Brexit vote, Wright’s film is as much about a man struggling to make sense of the noise around him as it is about the decisions he had to make.
Anthony McCarten’s screenplay dwells quite confidently on the murkiness of this; bathed in twilight, the House of Commons is presented more as a savage bear pit than Speakers’ Corner, making the point that Churchill’s famous speeches were powerful simply because they had to be. This was a world in which Adolf Hitler’s bid for global domination was still imagined to be a knowable form of expansionism, and – quite shockingly – appeasement was not only on the table, it was, for many, the better option.
So much of the story is familiar, but the treatment is not. Taking the opposite tack to Nolan’s hyper-realistic Dunkirk, which used a low-key, Mass Observation-inspired documentary style to create a kind of epic naturalism, Wright zooms bullishly in and out of his exquisitely appointed set-ups, his camera sometimes literally hovering above them.
Wisely, he resists any impulse to try to top the famous five-minute Dunkirk tableau from 2007’s Atonement, and this (relative) restraint works in the film’s favour.
As its title might suggest, this is a film that allows for few shades of grey. But having established his intent, Wright opts to be serious without necessarily being sombre. Played with mischief and passion by a near-unrecognisable Gary Oldman, Churchill is a nest of eccentricities, given to drinking and inclined to depression but grounded by his tender and rock-solid relationship with his wife Clementine (Kristin Scott Thomas).
The waste of this talented actress in such a perfunctory role is jarring in a film peppered with rich parts for men – Ben Mendelsohn’s King George VI, Ronald Pickup’s Neville Chamberlain, Samuel West as Anthony Eden – as is an almost comically absurd sequence in which Churchill meets a Tube-full of miraculously diverse (and eloquent) Londoners during a single-stop journey that seems to take for ever.
Such Hollywood-skewed pitfalls aside, though, Darkest Hour is one of the better examples of the British prestige pic, an absorbing study of an over-mythologised political figure that depicts him not so much as a hero as a principled man snatching victory from the jaws of defeat.
Oldman, meanwhile, perhaps seeing something of himself in the role of the outsider, is never less than sensational: Churchill’s dark times make for his brightest in years. What a performance.
Darkest Hour is released in cinemas on Friday 12th January