For a film set in Europe in 1940, Darkest Hour barely features any battles on the front lines leading up to World War II.
Yet there’s still plenty of conflict driving this suspenseful British historical drama, most of it taking place inside the head of Prime Minister Winston Churchill over his country’s strategy for spurning a potential Nazi invasion.
This biopic of Churchill navigating his first few months in office effectively reenacts his fiery speeches and nimble diplomacy through a sensational performance by Gary Oldman and some evocative period re-creation.
Churchill’s appointment by King George (Ben Mendelsohn) fills the need for a respected neutral figure after the parliamentary discord created by the resignation of Neville Chamberlain. He takes charge just as France is on the brink of falling to the advancing Nazi regime.
Almost immediately, as an attack seems imminent, he must decide whether Britain should attempt to negotiate a peace treaty with Hitler, or promise to fight back. Churchill takes the risky stance to “never surrender,” which is popular with his constituency but less so among lawmakers.
As he attempts to persuade his colleagues, he wrestles with internal uncertainty — needing redemption after his role in the failed attack at Gallipoli years earlier.
The film makes an intriguing companion piece with the recent Dunkirk, taking place during a parallel timeframe and referencing the same incident from an alternate perspective.
Oldman employs substantial makeup to resemble Churchill, but his portrayal surpasses mere physical transformation or mimicry of his voice and mannerisms. The actor manages to capture Churchill’s high-profile charisma as well as his eccentricities during the film’s quieter and more contemplative moments.
Indeed, some of the film’s best moments are those outside of 10 Downing Street, such as Churchill interacting with blue-collar commuters on the subway, or conversing with his wife (Kristin Scott Thomas) at home.
Although the dialogue far outpaces the action, director Joe Wright (Atonement) keeps the tension high even as most viewers likely already know the basics of the true-life story. The screenplay by Anthony McCarten (The Theory of Everything) is a bit glossy in its tendency to overlook Churchill’s flaws, yet it effectively captures the sociopolitical climate of the time.
Darkest Hour provides only modest insight and context, although it spotlights bipartisanship and political compromise in ways that resonate beyond its setting and transcend war and peace.