The Oscars happened this past Sunday, prompting, as always, a great deal of praise, backlash, and warring responses. People have celebrated Jordan Peele’s screenwriting win for Get Out and argued Guillermo del Toro’s victories, with The Shape of Water taking Best Director and Best Picture. One of the most controversial wins seems to have been Best Actor, which was awarded to Gary Oldman of Darkest Hour.
Darkest Hour chronicles Winston Churchill during his appointment to, and very early days in, the position of Prime Minister of the United Kingdom. During these early days, fellow politicians are relentlessly pressuring him to attempt to negotiate a peace treaty with Adolf Hitler, whose control is rapidly spreading across all of Western Europe. Churchill refuses to consider the idea of a peaceful resolution; in one particularly impactful and memorable scene, he shouts, “You cannot reason with a tiger when your head is in its mouth!”
The main plot that rides along with the conflict of the film is that of Dunkirk and Calais, where the last of the British army has been trapped by rapidly advancing German forces. This is interesting given that the movie Dunkirk was also released last year, which focuses entirely on the battles being waged while the high-tension conversations of Darkest Hour were taking place. Darkest Hour doesn’t entirely measure up to that level of excitement, for understandable reasons, but it does include quite a lot of impassioned arguing, quotable speeches, and shouting within small rooms. In other words, it’s true to form: It’s about Churchill.
The best thing about the film is probably Gary Oldman’s portrayal of Churchill. He looks just like him (a feat which earned the film an Oscar win for Best Makeup and Hairstyling), and he offers what many have agreed to be one of the most convincing portrayals of his career. There are many conflicting sides to Churchill — he could be courteous and caring, but he could also be brusque and abrasive. During one memorable scene from the movie, Churchill is dining with King George VI, who tells him that many people — including the King himself — find him intimidating. Churchill seems surprised, but it’s not hard to see why people would be intimidating — as George points out, one can never be sure how Churchill will react to anything. Whether or not he deserved the Oscar for it (my opinion is no, but only because Daniel Kaluuya from Get Out was also in the running), Oldman is wildly impressive and convincing throughout.
The film has a few weak points, mostly in terms of its inclusion of women. The poster for the movie features two female characters — Kristin Scott Thomas and Lily James as Clementine Churchill and Elizabeth Layton, respectfully — which seems promising at first glance. However, this proves to be somewhat misleading. Thomas and James offer very strong performances, but they aren’t given very much screen time to work with, and they seem somewhat incidental to the plot, especially in comparison with the many male characters.
Ultimately, the film is indeed a very strong period drama, and it succeeds in its twin missions of documenting an important moment in history and elucidating some of the mysterious facets of Churchill’s character. Given the immense strength of so many other films released last year, I personally think it lacks some originality in comparison. However, viewed independently, it is a strong piece of film and an enlightening character study of one of the major figures of the twentieth century.