TL;DR

  • One of the year’s strongest biopics
  • Narrow scope works very well, focusing on just a month and so giving so much detail
  • Informative and enjoyable
  • Excellent performances from the supporting cast
  • Brilliant set decoration, cinematography and direction
  • Witty, well-paced writing, though occasionally heavy and exhausting
  • The Oscar is absolutely deserved for Oldman (and the make-up) – an incredible performance

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Every year it seems we can expect at least one Oscar-nominated film recounting the life of a historical figure (this year we have two, Darkest Hour and I, Tonya). These aren’t confined to one season, however, and there are numerous biopics coming out all the time. Not all of these are a hit, many being critically panned. However some biopics lauded, both by critics and audiences alike; Darkest Hour is one of these films, instantly becoming an example for the biopic genre in general, largely due to its focus, managing to mix story, struggles, history and personality seamlessly.

It’s the early days of World War II and Neville Chamberlain (Ronald Pickup) has been removed as Prime Minister, much to the disappointment of King George VI (Ben Mendelsohn). As favourite Viscount Halifax (Stephen Dillane) passes on the position, the responsibility falls to eccentric Winston Churchill (Gary Oldman). Supported by faithful wife Clemmie (Kristin Scott Thomas) and his loyal secretary Elizabeth Layton (Lily James), Darkest Hour charts the first month of Churchill’s rule (the ‘darkest hour’ of WWII), telling the story of his struggles within Parliament as well as with the ever-increasing Nazi threat. Shall he fold and negotiate a peace treaty with Adolf Hitler, or will he fight on and bring Britain to victory?

While many biopics try (often in vain) to chart the life of a great figure from birth to death, Darkest Hour instead narrows its scope to a crucial, captivating month in the life of its protagonist. Churchill is a fascinating character and to tell the whole story of his life in just one film is too big a challenge to really do the man justice. Instead we go on an often intimate journey with him and his early struggles, many of which a great deal of the audience will not be aware of. Personally I had no idea that Churchill experience so much criticism and doubt even by members of his own party. Since there’s a lot of history to learn as we watch, heavy expositionary dialogue is almost inevitable. At times such intense and heavy conversations packed full of information can become exhausting and one might find their mind wondering slightly, in need of some light relief. This relief isn’t provided often, but that’s not to say the film is devoid of comedy. In fact, Oldman’s performance of Churchill himself gives us a great deal of comedy to lighten the tone and really improve the overall personality of the film. Still, even when there’s a lot of serious discussions going on, it’s never dull and always well-written, not getting too bogged down in the dreary and unnecessary details. The moments when we see the full personality of Churchill come through is when the film shines and Anthony McCarten’s script perfectly captures the image of the man about whom we hear so many stories. However this is mostly down to Gary Oldman.

Oldman is certainly the heart and soul of Darkest Hour. Even if we were to forget the make-up, his performance is outstanding; but with the Academy Award-winning make-up it’s incredible how he is transformed and how successfully he embodies Churchill and brings him to life before our very eyes. This is all best seen in a scene that probably never happened in real life – Churchill heads on into the London Underground by himself, astonishing the passengers and chatting with them all. This is Oldman’s Oscar-winning performance at its finest; story is temporarily forgotten, and it’s an absolute to joy to watch him just be that character, disbelief absolutely suspended, either willingly or unwillingly. Though Gary Oldman certainly seizes the film, the supporting cast support very well. Mendelsohn takes a different approach to King George than Colin Firth, making this character seem more his own, and Pickup and Dillane are perfect as stuffy politicians. Yet it’s Scott Thomas and James that are the strongest in the supporting cast, giving both Churchill and the film a strong, kind and womanly touch that the overly male-dominated film needs.

Director Joe Wright and director of photography Bruno Delbonnel also include gorgeous aesthetics. The set decoration is sublime, fully immersing us into a WWII London and letting it come to life. More than this, it’s all shot beautifully and sometimes theatrically, with some of its cinematography inspiring. These all come together to strongly emphasise either the isolation or the triumph Churchill feels at different points throughout his story.

It’s obvious from all the talk and even the poster that this is Gary Oldman’s film. It’s important to remember though that there’s so much more to enjoy and applaud. With excellent writing, directing and cinematography, an emotional and realistic WWII London is brought to life, supported by an excellent cast. This is all topped off by an incredibly transformed Gary Oldman, fully evoking Churchill and giving us the performance of a lifetime. A big V for Victory!

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