It’s good to remember that Great Britain was in great peril in May 1940 amid its war with Adolf Hitler and the Nazis. The mood in Parliament was that a British defeat appeared to be quite possible, especially after the fall of France.
Politicians, led by Neville Chamberlain and Viscount Halifax, were urging peace talks with Hitler. The United States had not yet entered the war and was declining to help Britain and France because of its official position of remaining neutral.
Into this perilous fray stepped Winston Churchill, who at 65 became British prime minister. And with his words, he helped rally Britain, save many of the troops trapped at Dunkirk and change the course of history.
Screenwriter Anthony McCarten uses Churchill’s words and speeches to Parliament to create a remarkable screenplay that focuses on a few weeks when the weight of the world was on Churchill’s shoulders. And Joe Wright, director of “Atonement” and “Pride and Prejudice,” takes that screenplay and brings it to life with a brilliant cast.
But most people will be floored by the guy who plays the overweight, cigar-chomping Churchill — the quite thin and fit Gary Oldman, who had to undergo a physical transformation with the help of prosthetics artist Kazuhiro Tsuji. You can see Oldman’s eyes beneath the makeup, and you can hear Oldman re-create Churchill’s greatest speeches convincingly.
Surprisingly, there’s a lot of humor in “Darkest Hour.” Most of it comes from Churchill’s fairly outrageous conduct in some cases, like dictating to his assistant Elizabeth (Lily James) while sitting in a tub — or when Churchill flashes a backward V sign for victory to photographers, only to be told by Elizabeth later that the gesture means “up your bum.”
Other humor comes from his interactions with King George VI (Ben Mendelsohn), who has an initial dislike of Churchill’s bluntness. When the king points out that he’ll need to set up a weekly meeting with Churchill for policy briefings, the king proposes meeting at 4 p.m. on a specific day. To which Churchill replies, “I nap at 4 p.m.” So they have a regular luncheon meeting instead, where Churchill consumes vast amounts of food and alcohol. The king, of course, is far more restrained. (In case you’re wondering, this is the king that Colin Firth portrayed in “The King’s Speech.”)
We also get a glimpse into Churchill’s private life with his wife of 31 years, Clementine (Kristin Scott Thomas), whom Churchill trusted above all others. And although they have constant rows, it’s clear that they love each other and that Clementine knows how to reign him in from some of his less-than-stellar behavior.
The script — and Oldman’s portrayal of Churchill — make the movie riveting. Yes, folks, words really matter.
Starring: Gary Oldman, Kristin Scott Thomas, Lily James, Stephen Dillane, Ben Mendelsohn
Rating: PG-13, for adult themes, war violence
Running time: 2 hours, 5 minutes