You don’t often get historical dramas that are both handsome and alive, but director Joe Wright brings both qualities to Darkest Hour. The film recreates Winston Churchill’s first months as England’s prime minister, when there was deep division within the government over whether to continue the fight against Germany or capitulate.
The handsomeness is due largely to the Rembrandt-inspired lighting scheme (courtesy of cinematographer Bruno Delbonnel), which punctuates pockets of darkness with glowing lamps and strategic shafts of light. The liveliness comes in the movement of the camera, particularly in tracking shots of life along a busy London street and a swooping, CGI-assisted crane shot that begins on a memo held by a British commander in Calais and rises up above the war-torn city to a sky dominated by the Luftwaffe. There are a lot of speeches in Darkest Hour, and Wright must have wanted to make sure that no one drifts off to sleep.
To be fair, the speeches are fairly compelling, if necessarily grandstanding. Gary Oldman, under layers of makeup and prosthetics, rumbles and harrumphs convincingly as Churchill, even if his eyes are way too young. (Why not just cast an older actor in the part?) At least Oldman seems uninterested in glamorizing his subject, capturing Churchill’s selfishness and bullying as much as his rousing leadership. The movie, similarly, avoids most of the pitfalls of hagiography. True, there is a pandering scene in which Churchill nobly crowdsources his final decision on the war in a subway car of fearless commoners. But there is also the quiet, late-night conversation he has (notably beneath the harsh glare of a bare lightbulb) with King George VI (Ben Mendelsohn), during which he express his fears and doubts over what course of action to take.
I do wish Darkest Hour had found more for its women characters to do, particularly considering the two biggest parts are filled by Kristin Scott Thomas (playing Churchill’s wife) and Lily James (as his typist). James’ part in particular feels like a concession to legitimate demands for better representations of women onscreen, and as such it’s a half step at best. Still, and despite his name not being in the title, I suppose this is a movie about Winston Churchill, and as that it’s probably far more nuanced than it could have been. Unlike so many biopics, Darkest Hour is about a man rising to an occasion, rather than the adoring adulation of a particular man.