I had the chance to attend the UK premiere of Churchill biopic Darkest Hour starring Gary Oldman. Check out the video above for footage from the red carpet event including some interesting insights into the film by one of the film’s stars Kristin Scott Thomas and screenwriter Anthony McCarten.
You can also read my thoughts on the film below.
London, 1940. Nazi Germany is decimating Europe. Britain’s ruling Conservative Party leader, Neville Chamberlain is ousted from power by a parliamentary vote of no confidence. The party’s chosen successor: a middle-aged, overweight, boozer, with a questionable military record – Winston Churchill. The country’s darkest hour, indeed.
In the opening minutes of Neville Chamberlain (Ronald Pickup) being unceremoniously ousted from the prime-ministership because of his lack of nerve in the war effort. It is abundantly clear from the elaborate camera setup, which glides seamlessly from a birds-eye view to a stark close up of Chamberlain’s ashen face, his political career in tatters – this is very much a Joe Wright film, and he is flexing all of his considerable cinematic muscles for the awards season.
The political fallout is swift and brutal. And a new prime minister must be chosen without delay, all eyes are on Lord Halifax, Edward Wood (Stephen Dillane). But he declines, preferring to bide his time until the time is right and the fate of Britain is certain. In a darkened bedroom, a slumbering Winston Churchill (Gary Oldman), wakes to the news of his new appointment as the leader of the country. It’s everything he ever wanted. But it’s twenty years too late, he’s an old man, full of self-doubt, and a pariah of the Conservative Party. And the knives are already being sharpened behind his back…
Darkest Hour is a war film without the war. The bombast of Enfield rifles spitting lead at Nazis on hellish battlefields is but a small and aerially shot footnote in Anthony McCarten’s screenplay. The claustrophobic corridors of Whitehall, dimly-lit bunkers, and empty backrooms, is where Churchill and Halifax waged a ferocious and little known war for the hearts and minds of the British people. It is chamber theatre, with a stately and sombre wartime backdrop, directed by Wright with pace and pin-sharp precision.
Oldman’s Churchill is a powerhouse. He is truculent, charming, and fragile, all in equal measure. And funny, which is surprising; given the most enduring image of the porcine-like war hero, is of a robust man with a sharp word or two. And yet, he was a man cocooned. Unable to boil an egg, by his own admission. Utterly disconnected from his fellow country men and women, whom he so cherished. He was a fighter, but all too often crippled by his lack of temperance. And yet, those closest to him, his secretary Elizabeth Layton (Lily James), King George VI (Ben Mendelsohn), and his wife Clementine Churchill – superbly played by Kristin Scott Thomas with warmth and quiet strength. All saw the brilliance in the deeply flawed Churchill, and his power to command the English language like no other.
For all the film’s bold acting, it isn’t without a few flaws. In one historically questionable scene, Churchill takes an underground tube and vox pops a carriage full of commuters, almost derailing the film. It feels laughably schmaltzy, and a little too left field. But the film regains its footing, as Oldman sinks his teeth into Churchill’s famous “Battle of Britain” speech. And it’s hard not to feel a swell of patriotism, a country united, which is a far cry from today’s “Brexit” Britain. Ultimately, this is a film about having faith. Faith in yourself. Faith in people. And the faith to question leadership at the darkest of hours.
This is an awards film. Yes, it’s that kind of film, for better or worse, it is a rousing portrayal of Churchill’s life, and Gary Oldman’s performance delivers like a Lancaster Bomber with the bomb bay doors wide-open.