Whilst you might think it’s a story you’ve heard before, and there have been numerous renditions of Winston Churchill over the years, it appears to have hit a peak recently with two films on the great man at the same time. There was Jonathan Teplitzky’s Churchill last year (played by Brian Cox) and now this compellingly pacey and significant film, Darkest Hour, that stars Gary Oldman as the hugely important British PM and is directed by Joe Wright.
Set in May 1940, and the first five weeks of Winston Churchill’s rise to power, Wright’s film sets out to to remind us of the person behind the history, and the very personal fight he embarked upon against his own party and allies. It’s difficult to comprehend for a modern viewer, or historical newcomer, that the fate of Western Europe truly hung in the balance as Adolf Hitler and his Nazi Party stormed their way across the European mainland and towards the coast of the English Channel.
What we see with Oldman’s portrayal is Winston’s fight not only with himself and his conscience, but also the weight of the world upon his shoulders. He’s been transformed by prosthetics and whereas this would have been an issue in the past, here he feels like Churchill with only an occasional glimpse of the Gary within. This is important as he manages to absorb the spirit and voice of the former British leader and because Wright’s film often revolves around speeches and set-pieces, so we have to believe and we do.
What also helps is the real-to-life, hand-crafted sets that take us inside the War Cabinet Rooms and the House of Lords. These expertly constructed surroundings means you never question the situation or setting we’re in. It’s also helpful to have a strong cast around you and Kristin Scott-Thomas leads the way on fine form as his wife Clemmie, who’s vital to his state of mind, and Lily James as his personal secretary Elizabeth Layton, the latter acting as the audiences’ view inside the politics. Ben Mendelsohn plays King George VI, the famous Royal who overcame a speech impediment and eventually aligned with Churchill’s’ desires to fight, rather than quit, and he’s a welcome non-Brit who freshens up the role with a straight, focused and forthright performance.
Joe Wright’s film is funny and poignant, and it almost feels timely, as it truly brings to life history with deft pacing and terrific performances. Oldman is both unrecognisable and astonishingly good – and some speeches you end up wholeheartedly agreeing as you experience his fight, and the fight against him.
Never forget, if Churchill hadn’t been so resolute, some might say stubborn, then it’s entirely possible Britain would have tried to negotiate a Peace deal with Hitler and who knows what would have happened after that. But, thankfully, the great man stuck to his cause and Darkest Hour is fine memory of the man and the cause he fought for which is… our freedom today.