Part three in the unofficial Winston Churchill Extended Cinematic Universe (#WCECU), Darkest Hour is the second best of the ‘series.’ Dunkirk, of course, is number one, while Churchill gets the bronze just for showing up.
What makes Darkest Hour so notable is its central performance. Gary Oldman, under heavy prosthetic makeup, simply becomes Winston Churchill. His cadence matches that of the wartime prime minister, as does his fiery disposition. The way he walks, smokes, the way his lower lip smacks — Oldman has dissolved almost completely. He’s still noticeable when he gets to screaming. The prosthetic makeup, something which pretty much never works, in my opinion, is the best I’ve ever seen. The uncanny valley is almost crossed. Winston Churchill’s considerable jowls sweat. The makeup has learned to sweet, ladies and gentlemen.
The story is one we’ve seen before, and will be familiar to history buffs, but it remains worth telling. When Churchill came to power it was at a time when England was facing defeat by the German Army, and was giving serious consideration to peace talks with their potential invaders. It was Churchill’s job to weigh the consequences of any potential response, up to and including sacrificing national pride.
Joe Wright is an talented director, and his style is well-suited to the material (he made Atonement). Whether he’s doing a genre throwback like Hanna or a complete studio misfire like Pan, one can’t argue with the craft on display. Wright’s films have a handsome, painterly quality to them, but never in a pedestrian way. There’s something fun about his shot composition which prevents what could have easily been a stuffy, biographical talkie like, well, Churchill, and make it feel fresh.
Kudos to cinematographer Bruno Delbonnel (Inside Llewyn Davis) for the impeccable lighting work. Parliament scenes are particularly well lit, and when combined with Wright’s framing technique, they elicit
the orderly calamity or Eakins’ The Agnew Clinic, or for a more contemporary reference, the Soderbergh’s The Knick.
We’re not reinventing the wheel here, but it’s a well-made wheel, and it rolls forward just fine.