Much has been written of Gary Oldman’s performance in Darkest Hour penned by the Oscar-nominated screenwriter of The Theory of Everything Anthony McCarten. And quite rightfully so. For to use the codename of the Dunkirk evacuation, he is a “Dynamo”. Tender and bullish, vulnerable and strong, avoiding all traces of caricature and instead losing himself in the role (and under Kazuhiro Tsuji’s seamless prosthetics) to such an extent that it is little wonder he has bagged a Golden Globe and is odds-on to pick up his first Academy Award.
But this is no one-man show. Indeed, he doesn’t feature for several scenes; his first appearance illuminated by the striking of a match as he mumbles and barks dictation to his newly recruited personal assistant Elizabeth Nel (Lily James) from the confines of his darkened bedroom. James, along with her fellow cast members ‒ most notably Kristin Scott Thomas as his wife Clementine, Ben Mendelsohn as George VI and Stephen Dillane as Halifax ‒ are equally impressive. As is the cinematography by Bruno Delbonnel (Inside Llewyn Davis) which features memorable aerial shots of the House of Commons and extreme close-ups of heated debates in the subterranean corridors of power that is the Cabinet (now Churchill) War Rooms.
Directed by Joe Wright, the thrust of the movie concerns Churchill’s elevation to the role of Prime Minister following the forced resignation of Neville Chamberlain (Ronald Pickup), his refusal to negotiate a peace settlement with Germany on the grounds that “you cannot reason with a tiger when your head is in its mouth”, his controversial decision to sacrifice 4,000 soldiers at Calais in order to secure the evacuation of over 300,000 troops from Dunkirk (as chronicled in Christopher Nolan’s excellent film Dunkirk) and his famous rallying cry to “never surrender” and “fight on the beaches”.
Amidst the “blood, toil, tears and sweat” runs a vein of dark humour which captures Churchill’s erratic behaviour and eccentric personality to a tee, which he put down to having “a wildness in the blood” and lacking “the gift of temperance”. Speeches are often dictated from his regal throne in the toilet; James gets a flash of his crown jewels on more than one occasion as he floats about the house “in a state of nature”; and his waspish one-liners are legendary, the most memorable being his dry dismissal of Clement Atlee (David Schofield) as “a sheep in sheep’s clothing”. But the most revealing moment in the film is when he stands before a collection of hats and muses aloud: “Which self shall I be today?”