This has proven to be the year of Dunkirk. With Christopher Nolan’s film, Lone Scherfig’s “Their Finest” and now, Joe Wright’s Churchill biopic “Darkest Hour.” Although Dunkirk offers the stakes and setting to “Darkest Hour,” this is not a film about Dunkirk, but the man behind it, with the event offering a way to understand him through one of his earliest trials in leadership.
Inspired by three speeches Churchill gave in May and June 1940, screenwriter Anthony McCarten’s story takes place over a short couple of weeks of our subject’s life — from right before he’s installed as prime minister to his first major political and wartime victory, the evacuation of 300,000 troops from Dunkirk.
It’s a short amount of time to get to know him, but with Gary Oldman’s performance and McCarten’s script, by the end he’s as near and dear to us as a trusted friend. We’ve become familiar with the quirks and qualities that make Churchill who he is. He’s a day drinker, a heavy smoker, a captivating orator. He’s unpredictable, scaring some people, but principled and passionate, lacking “the gift of temperance,” as he says. He’s a savvy politician, holding his own in his war cabinet meetings.
But ultimately, he is compassionate, and although he’s an aristocrat, he’s motivated to serve all people. He’s moved by his secretary Elizabeth (Lily James), who lost her brother in France, and when he finally breaks off from the politicking in the basement and speaks to some real people — on the London Underground, in an inspiring and emotional scene — he shakes loose the shackles of political propriety and becomes emboldened in his commitment to fearlessly lead the people.
We might as well just hand the Oscar to Oldman today for this transformed performance. He’s aided by remarkably realistic makeup and padding, but he transforms his own physicality in the role, altering not just his speech, but his breathing and the way he holds his mouth. At the center of this amazingly detailed performance is the sharp wit, no-nonsense manner and great humanity Oldman never lets us lose sight of.
The craftsmanship on display — cinematography, lighting, production design, costumes, acting, editing — is simply astonishing. Wright and cinematographer Bruno Delbonnel take a bold approach to lighting, creating an incredibly detailed and textured look. Light pours through windows, illuminating particles in the air, filtered through shadows. It’s all in the creation of a sensory, transporting experience of place. When we first see Churchill, his face is suddenly illuminated out of the pitch black by the orange flash of a match, lighting a breakfast cigar, before heavy curtains are thrown open for the morning light to reveal the portly fellow, in bed with a tray, in his rose-colored dressing gown.
Throughout, Wright and Delbonnel delicately mix color temperatures, warm glowing lamps mingling with cooler natural light. When Churchill and King George VI (Ben Mendelsohn) have their reckoning and come together, they are lit by a harsh bare bulb, both men unable to hide under the unforgiving light. It’s the first time we see the king outside of his ornate, gilded, imposing palace setting, an environment that swallows him up.
Wright crafts a cinematic style that is inextricably intertwined with the story. While “Darkest Hour” is a showcase for Oldman’s incredible performance, Wright’s aesthetic visually transports the viewer, the images heavy with subtext and meaning. The carefully created film is also enormously moving, an intimate portrait of and rousing tribute to a legendary figure in 20th-century history.