In a film that is both historically informative and deeply personal, Gary Oldman gives a remarkable performance as British leader Winston Churchill in the throes of a political and military crisis.
“Darkest Hour,” directed by Joe Wright from a screenplay by Anthony McCarten, is set at the time when British soldiers are trapped at Dunkirk and the pressure is on for them to surrender. Churchill is faced with those who want to work out a peace agreement with the Nazis with go-between negotiations arranged via Mussolini’s Italy. It would in effect mean Britain’s surrender to end the war.
Pressure is applied on Churchill by Foreign Secretary Lord Halifax, played obstinately by Stephen Dillane. His chief ally is Neville Chamberlain (Ronald Pickup), with a history of not wanting to fight. While Churchill is convinced that Britain should not give in, he is deeply troubled by assuming responsibility for the possibility of mass death of troops at Dunkirk.
We, of course, know how the Britain rallied with an navy of small boats going to Dunkirk and ferrying troops to safety. The film dramatizes how this comes about through Churchill’s patriotic appeal to his countrymen.
There is high drama as the issue of fight or surrender is hammered out behind closed doors, and there is an episode in which Britain’s King George VI (Ben Mendelsohn) visits Churchill to give his support for whatever Churchill as Prime Minister decides. Other cast members include Kristin Scott Thomas as Clementine Churchill.
The film gets a bit hokey, whether or not the episode is based on fact, when Churchill takes a rare ride in the underground and is recognized by passengers. He chooses a few to ask their opinion-- fight or surrender--and that sets off an emotional agreement among passenger after passenger that Britain should stand firm against Hitler. The rallying experience encourages Churchill to make the decision he wants to make.
“Darkest Hour” vividly recalls that critical time by not focusing on the battlefield as war pictures usually do but by taking us behind the scenes into the crucial decision that must be made. It also reminds us again what a powerful force Churchill was by inspiring Britain to rise to the occasion and fight despite the odds. It also provides the opportunity for Oldman, dressed and made up to look very much like Churchill, to give an award caliber performance. A Focus Features release. Reviewed October 4. 2017.