Darkest Hour Gary Oldman, Lily James, Ben Mendelsohn. Directed by Joe Wright. Rated PG-13. Opens Friday in select theaters.
For the first 10 or 15 minutes of Darkest Hour, it’s hard to do anything but gape. Gary Oldman has undergone many a physical transformation over the course of his long career, but seeing him as Winston Churchill still astounds; he truly disappears beneath the makeup (by Kazuhiro Tsuji) and mannerisms, which paradoxically means that you’re constantly looking for him. Eventually, though, that impulse settles down, and it’s possible to get drawn into the tumult of mid-1940, when Churchill replaced Neville Chamberlain as the U.K.’s Prime Minister and was faced with the seemingly impossible mass evacuation of 300,000 soldiers trapped on the beaches of France (as previously seen from another angle in Dunkirk). Like Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln, the film takes a deep dive into political machinations, as the appeasement wing of Churchill’s war council pressures him to negotiate with Hitler rather than risk a devastating defeat.
We know what decision he made, of course, but Darkest Hour does a solid job—for a while, anyway—of exploring the strategic and emotional contours of those crucial weeks. The film craftily stays out of Churchill’s head, for the most part, deflecting his feelings onto supporting characters; it’s a powerful moment when his secretary (Lily James) can’t initially bring herself to type the last few words of an order he’s dictating, which will almost surely result in numerous British soldiers being killed (in order to save many more).
Sadly, screenwriter Anthony McCarten betrays history in the home stretch, inventing a ludicrous sequence in which Churchill takes the London underground and crowdsources his final decision regarding possible peace talks with Germany. Combined with some needless visual showboating by director Joe Wright (Atonement), this phony populist gesture undermines the sense of authenticity that Darkest Hour requires. Without it, we’re just marveling at a superficial tour de force.