Dozens of American actors have taken on the role of John F. Kennedy, proudly poofing their hair and swapping their A’s for Ahh’s in efforts to capture the smooth swagger of the 35th President. It’s the American role of a lifetime, a patriotic endeavor to play arguably the most beloved president in modern history. But playing Winston Churchill, the most popular British politician in history, isn’t as enjoyable for English actors as strapping on JFK’s frequently-unbuttoned slacks is for Americans. To bring Churchill to life, British stars must equip themselves with a hunched back, train their tongue into a hurried sense of speech, and either find themselves a damn good makeup team to look 30-40 pounds heavier, or dig out the biscuits and crumpets and start going to town. And even once they do that, they still have to act, hoping they can emulate the larger-than-life mannerisms of the prime minster, and pray to the Hollywood heavens above that the director knows what they are doing and that the movie won’t keel over from the weight of its own ambition.
Some actors retreat in the face of these Churchill challenges, while Gary Oldman and director Joe Wright triumphantly laugh, pointing at their “Darkest Hour,” a taut, methodical look at the prime minister in all his politically-charged, verbally-astute glory. Oldman isn’t great as Churchill, he quite literally IS Churchill. There’s no point in the film where you question that it’s not actually the prime minister we’re seeing on screen, or wondering if it’s Sirius Black from the “Harry Potter” series is transfiguring into Churchill. We get the leader in all his glory and gusto, but his flaws are reflected as brilliantly as a beam of sunlight poking through a Parliament, off of his glossy, bald head.
The movie follows Churchill after his selection to become the next Prime Minister, and his later difficulties with the Dunkirk military retreat and an impending German invasion. Every character who holds a powerful position in the film serves as an adversary or source of conflict to the prime minister, always walking in the opposite direction down from wherever Churchill has positioned himself on the political aisle.
We get a glimpse of whom Churchill is outside of politics through his relationships with his wife Clementine, played by Kristin Scott Thomas, and his secretary Elizabeth Layton, played by Lily James. Clementine seems like a worthy adversary and foible to Churchill, and Thomas does a commendable job bringing her gumption to life. But Layton is a more peculiar character, one who doesn’t wear her emotions on her sleeve but keeps them tucked far away from Churchill. She’s kept at a distance and is only given maybe one or two moments of raw but constrained emotion onscreen. It seems like there is more to this relationship than Wright is letting on, or maybe this is really how Layton and Churchill interacted. Regardless, even with Layton’s strong performance, we’re left wanting more from Lily.
Any flaws that “Darkest Hour” has are quickly swept under Wright’s directorial rug. This movie looks stunning and has an impeccable attention to detail. In one devastating scene, Churchill calls President Roosevelt to ask for military support, with Roosevelt turning out to be less than helpful. When the phone call ends, Wright gives us a wide shot of Churchill sitting alone in a bunker-type room. Churchill is in the middle-third, while a big slab of darkness is on the left-third, and another slab of darkness is one the right. We literally feel the emptiness and death squeezing in on the prime minister, the crippling loneliness he carries with himself at all times, how he must always be strong for those who cannot. You will honestly want to get up and applaud in the middle of the movie just when you see the framing of certain scenes, or watching how the camera moves in montage sequences or during longer character speeches.
But the movie does drag in its final act, where it feels like everything could have been wrapped up quite nicely 20 minutes ago. We’ve also lost sense of time and how long its ‘been since certain things have happened. Sometimes we get 15 minutes worth of movie just to depict one day, sometimes three days pass randomly without a single second of footage. But Oldman’s performance and Wright’s direction make up for any flaws, making “Darkest Hour” the best Churchill movie of 2017 (yes there were two!) as well as one of the most-admirably directed films of the past few years.