I haven’t written a film review for a while. Probably because I haven’t been to the cinema a lot – today being an exception – on a damp Thursday on the Champs-Elysées.
It’s all so very improbable. Gary Oldman, wolfish and saturnine, to play Winston Churchill, ponderous, overweight with jowls like an English bulldog? Surely not. He’s played Sid Vicious, Beethoven and Lee Harvey Oswald. But, what a spectacularly understated piece of casting – the Churchill to end them all, with apologies to John Lithgow and others. Hand over the Oscar now.
“Darkest Hour” is set in the months after the resignation of Neville Chamberlain, as Hitler’s Wehrmacht overran Belgium and trampled ruthlessly into France. As the seemingly unstoppable Nazi forces advance, and with the Allied army cornered on the beaches of Dunkirk, the fate of Western Europe hangs on the leadership of the newly-appointed British Prime Minister, a phoenix rising from the ashes.
The power play is between the terminally sick Neville Chamberlain, pain-wracked and ageing, the barely concealed appeasement of the nearly-leader, Lord Halifax and Churchill himself, set in a dark, monochrome London, full of men who smoke, urgently murmuring in brown, panelled rooms.
Clementine Churchill, Winston’s wife, (Kristin Scott Thomas) the ballast in the thinking of a sometimes tortured mind was calm and sensible in contrast to Winston’s terrified but hugely competent secretary-typist Miss Layton (Lily James) who’s almost his muse when crafting his great speeches.
The acting talent of the Great Man himself doesn’t pass unnoticed. “You need to reply to the Lord Privy Seal, sir”. Winston’s response, in his pink dressing gown behind the toilet door: “I am sealed in the privy, sir, and I can only deal with one shit at a time.”
The film is claustrophobic, mostly, set as it is in war rooms and corridors of power. There are some memorable interactions at the Palace with a rhotacic Ben Mendelsohn as King George VI, in stark contrast to Winston finding himself interacting with the common people who help him make up his mind as he decides to travel to Westminster by Tube.
No blood, guts, sex or glory, but a riveting insight into how a great leader shouldered the responsibilities of war. 9/10.