You could look at Joe Wright’s historical drama “Darkest Hour” as the flip side of Christopher Nolan’s “Dunkirk.” It tells of the same events, but from a different perspective: Nolan’s film focuses on the thousands of troops famously stranded on the beaches of Dunkirk during World War II; Wright’s takes place in the dim hallways of power in London, where politicians led by Prime Minister Winston Churchill (Gary Oldman) debate how to rescue them. (Throw in Lone Scherfig’s “Their Finest,” in which wartime filmmakers make a movie inspired by the Dunkirk incident, and you’d have a pretty great triple feature.) And while “Dunkirk” swoops and dances with time, “Darkest Hour” is a straightforward, day-by-day depiction of world-changing events, told with meticulous simplicity.
This Masterpiece Theater-ish approach, however, works just fine. “Darkest Hour” is a handsome, old-fashioned film, filled with stirring music, dusty light and thoughtful performances—with one whopper of a star turn at its core. Oldman, who offscreen looks not a whit like Churchill, is physically transformed here: prosthetics drown his face in jowls; trousers are pulled high over a protruding belly; his walk is heavy and deliberate, leaning forward, hands clasped behind as if in counterbalance.
His overstuffed cushion of a voice, complete with indistinguishable mumbles between words, intones both now-famous speeches (“We shall fight on the beaches … ”) and more prosaic dialogue. (“How do you manage all this drinking during the day?” someone asks Churchill, whose day begins with breakfast Scotch-and-soda. “Practice,” the prime minister replies.)
Wright surrounds Oldman with masterful supporting players: Kristin Scott Thomas, who gets only enough time to make you wish that her arch Clemmie Churchill had a movie of her own (somebody please make this movie); Lily James as a wide-eyed young secretary to the prime minister; Ben Mendelsohn’s King George VI, struggling with a speech impediment (which Mendelsohn is careful not to overplay) and with events he cannot control.
But this is Oldman’s movie, and it’s a pleasure to watch him disappear into Churchill. If the movie occasionally slips into implausibility—there’s a charming scene involving Churchill on the Tube that’s perhaps too charming—it’s easy to forgive. “Darkest Hour” is history made drama; a portrait of a leader both larger than life and utterly human.
Directed by: Joe Wright
Starring: Gary Oldman, Kristin Scott Thomas, Lily James, Stephen Dillane, Ronald Pickup, Ben Mendelsohn.
Running time: 125 minutes