It’s amazing how even the final film I saw of 2017 can leave an impact. That honor goes to “Darkest Hour”, a film toping numerous best picture and best actor lists of 2017 and to be absolutely blunt I have to agree with that sentiment. As one of the most well balanced movies of the year, “Darkest Hour” is funny, moving, gripping and amazingly acted. But I don’t want to jump the gun. Here is my take on one of the best biographical films of this or any year, “Darkest Hour”.
“Darkest Hour” focuses on the early days of Winston Churchill’s (Gary Oldman) reign as Prime Minister of the United Kingdom as Hitler closes in on the island of Britain in the early stages of World War II. With the emotional and professional support of his wife Clementine (Kristin Scott Thomas), his personal secretary Elizabeth Layton (Lily James) and others Churchill has to overcome plans to overpower him by his predecessor Neville Chamberlain (Ronald Pickup) and Foreign Secretary Lord Halifax (Stephen Dillane) while also juggling several early conflicts of the war including the infamous Dunkirk retreat and doubt from King George VI (Ben Mendelsohn).
Let’s get this out of the way right now, Gary Oldman’s take on the heavy drinking, cigar smoking, mumbling wartime leader of the United Kingdom is absolutely out of this world. A strong contender for many Best Actor awards I had to see Oldman’s take on Churchill for myself to believe it and not only did the experienced acting pro do justice to his subject he completely embodied Churchill in every way capturing his mannerisms, look, and even his slurred speech to a level of perfection few actors could ever even dream of accomplishing. Oldman makes this film. “Darkest Hour” has a worthy story and tone about it, jumping from emotionally heavy moments to ones of comedic levity perfectly, but it took an extremely dedicated performance by its lead to truly lift this film above being just a generic biopic. Oldman injects life into even the dullest parts of this film complimenting the actor’s already impressive legacy of creative and eccentric characters. Oldman just simply becomes his character and avoids overacting while also injecting attitude and personality into Churchill as well as the famous words the former Prime Minister used to help usher in a turnaround in World War II.
While none of the other actors can hold a candle to Oldman’s dedicated depiction of the wartime leader there is a great supporting cast that helps make this a complete film from start to finish, at least in terms of performances. Lily James provides a subtle but surprisingly emotive performance as Churchill’s trusted secretary Elizabeth Layton while Kristin Scott Thomas, who I personally was unfamiliar with when entering the film, provides an underrated performance as Churchill’s wife Clementine. Both ladies are important figures that provide much needed support for Churchill and build on the more human aspects of the leader’s personality helping present him as a capable leader who has very real concerns and flaws to address. TO this end the women of Churchill’s life take a justified role in his effort to turn the tide in World War II overshadowing almost all of the male roles in the movie even ones that get more screen time.
While they take more of a backseat to the World War II conflict, Churchill’s behind-the-scene foes Neville Chamberlain and Lord Halifax, played by Ronald Pickup and Stephen Dillane respectively, are also well portrayed even if some creative liberties were taken in their presentation. To some extent though I felt like these characters bogged the film down a bit and there were moments where it seemed like they were simply there to force more conflict into Churchill’s life even if the parts they play in the war discussions really did present issues for the Prime Minister at that time. This was one of the very few issues I had with the film was that it felt at times that Churchill was forced to endure friendly fire in order to get his way and while true life politics did impact Churchill’s attempts to push for a “no surrender” perspective in Parliament it never really pays off in any way in “Darkest Hour” and feels forced at best. It’s not a huge issue considering how well the rest of the film plays out but it is an issue nonetheless.
As a story “Darkest Hour” picks a great moment in Churchill’s life to portray as he is picked to succeed Chamberlain in one of the most frightening and unsure times of World War II. While the film is filled with some great moments of humor mixed with powerful moments of dramatic tension the backdrop also serves as a tool for the story’s central moral, to never surrender. Despite all the odds and powers being against him Churchill never gives up and even experiences moments of insecurity where he feels his decisions may cause more harm than good which serves as an eye opening presentation of a leader as we see him truly struggle with the weight of literally the world on his shoulders. Not that it really effects this films quality but it should be noted that this story shows the other side of the Dunkirk retreat after we saw the actual incident play out in Christopher Nolan’s war flick “Dunkirk” earlier this year. In a way “Darkest Hour” is an unintentional compliment to that project and it’s a pretty cool coincidence that the two are among the most celebrated films of 2017. You can read my “Dunkirk” review here.
One of the most mesmerizing aspects of “Darkest Hour” is that it never really rests on its laurels. It does have some dull points but even those moments have significance to the overall plot and prove to be gripping in their own way. Few moments are wasted and even when things are going right Churchill’s chaotic first days of the war throws a curve ball that keeps you on the edge of your seat even though you know how it ends. “Darkest Hour”, led by director Joe Wright, balances respect to history while also taking just enough liberty to make everything interesting, entertaining and memorable to the point where even the “We shall fight them on the beaches” speech feels epic and profound even when we’re already so familiar with it as one of the most famous speeches in war history. The whole experience just feels fresh, smooth, and delightfully entertaining making the most out of everything it has to work with to give us a truly mesmerizing picture.
“Darkest Hour” wasn’t a bad way for me to end my year as it truly is a work of art that goes beyond the set limitations of its story and characters to give us a truly memorable, entertaining, suspenseful, funny, and emotional experience that few films of this kind ever manage to become. Gary Oldman’s performance alone is worth putting this film on a pedestal but like the man whose life it depicts “Darkest Hour” took the world on its shoulders and defied expectations in every way. It does have a few dull moments of note and in lesser hands the story could have been very forgettable, but as a whole it’s not forgettable, it’s not dull, and frankly it’s one of the most gripping cinematic experiences I enjoyed in 2017. “Darkest Hour” is magnificent and shows how real-life events, and real-life people, can truly make for amazing stories on the big screen when you have enough artistic talent and commitment behind the scenes to bring those events and figures to fully realized life.