Every so often you find a performance better than the fits it lives within – and in Joe Wright’s Darkest Hour, a biopic of Winston Churchill, that very claim can be accredited, for Gary Oldman turns in a staggeringly impressive performance as the former British Prime Minister. The actor manages to veer ever so slightly into the realm of the caricature without compromising on the sheer excellence of his portrayal; nuanced, powerful and most importantly, authentic.
The film begins shortly before Churchill is appointed Prime Minister, after the House of Commons have finally lost their faith in Neville Chamberlain (Ronald Pickup). Many had expected Viscount Halifax (Stephen Dillane) to take on the role but when he withdraws from the conversation, it seems Churchill is the best option left available. His wife Clementine (Kristin Scott Thomas) is thrilled, but King George VI (Ben Mendelsohn) less so, as this abrupt, charismatic politician takes on the most undesirable job in the country – instantly tasked with a monumental decision; whether he’ll negotiate a peace treaty with Nazi Germany, or stand firm – and fight. Well, we know Churchill, and needless to say he opted for the latter, but in order to win this war he knows he had to rally his party, and the nation, as he felt that spirit could be one of the more vital ingredients in victory.
What helps ensure Darkest Hour is watchable (aside from Oldman, of course) is the dialogue, as we’re dealing with an incredible speaker, and his dramatic delivery and the way he would manipulate the English language to make for such rousing monologues gives Wright so much licence to be overtly cinematic without feeling contrived, with speeches that, if in any other film, would feel so scripted – but here, they’re based on reality.
It’s also through these scenes we see Lily James’ Elizabeth Layton, the poor, beleaguered woman tasked with typing up these elongated declamations, though it’s a character – and relationship – we don’t delve into enough, as some of the film’s more entertaining sequences derive from her being on the end of one of his aggressive lectures, as he stomps around in his pink pyjamas swearing, smoking, and drinking whisky. All before 10am, it’s worth adding.
But given Churchill is such a great talker, why not let him do the talking. It seems Wright, alongside screenwriter Antony McCarten, need more faith in their protagonist, falling for some of the tropes of the genre at hand, with a cliched score used to help add to the intensity of the narrative, trying to manufacture emotion and drama when it already exists. This is emblematic of a film that is too theatrical in parts, even turning Chamberlain and Halifax into pantomime villains in the process, just needing more subtlety and faith in the story its depicting.
It is interesting, however, that we aren’t taking the obvious route and exploring the eventual victory of the Second World War, instead watching on as he strives to gain the respect of his peers and the nation. And yet we still don’t leave feeling particularly educated nor enlightened – and when presenting a biopic of such a famed figure, you hope to leave having learnt something new about them, and yet here we seem to be treading over familiar ground, albeit in a rather entertaining way.