Gary Oldman dominates Darkest Hour as only the actor, barely recognizable under the layers of a fat suit and the gray-white hair of Winston Churchill, possibly can. He is, after all, one of the great performers working today, able to fully disappear into a role in ways that even heavy makeup cannot quite achieve. The illusion is certainly present in this dramatization of the weeks following his ascension to the post of Prime Minister of the United Kingdom in May 1940, just as the exit of the previous PM, Neville Chamberlain (Ronald Pickup), came after contentious political deliberation. The Conservative Party, Chamberlain's opposition, wants a coalition government, and only the appointment of Churchill will provide that.
The king (played by Ben Mendelsohn, quite good in his scenes as a monarch isolated from the voices that might give him the conviction to make the tough choices) is troubled by Churchill's record, which has been catastrophic. Talk of a pair of party switches - from Conservative to Liberal, then back - unsettles a lot of the eventual members of his War Cabinet, including the man originally approached for his job, the Viscount Halifax (Stephen Dillane). He wants Churchill to consider hiring Benito Mussolini, the leader of Italy, to broker a peace agreement between the Allied forces of the West and the Axis forces under Adolf Hitler.
Churchill balks at the idea, and the strongest stretches of Anthony McCarten's screenplay are those in which the world leader, sitting alone in an office or his library - with only his wife, Clementine (Kristin Scott Thomas, in a fine performance that is criminally underutilized), and occasional lunches with the king to allow him to hear himself thinking - struggles with what to do. Eventually, the time comes: On the shores of Calais and Dunkirk in France, the entire British fleet is beset on all sides by German forces, who are either closing in on land or commanding the skies in aircraft (Cinematographer Bruno Delbonnel offers some striking overhead photography of the trenches). The question of concession to Hitler's terms becomes an even harder one to answer.
McCarten certainly seems determined to relay all this historical information to us in as straightforward a manner as possible. He has littered his screenplay, then, with lackadaisical and entirely unlikely dialogue exchanges that commonly lay every piece of groundwork for the plot to move forward. This is clearest in a scene set on a subway train (likely formed out of whole cloth - though, even if it wasn't, it doesn't work as drama) in which Churchill's constituents inspire every line in the rousing speech (the second of three, the last we see, and the one involving the specific places Britons will fight if the Nazi rule extends its grasp to their island) that follows.
Director Joe Wright also offers embellishments to the storytelling that feel intrusive (such as the introduction of a typist played by Lily James, who is clearly supposed to stand in for the audience but serves no purpose otherwise, into the proceedings), when the telling of such a tale should be streamlined, and inadequate when called upon to offer some insight into Churchill himself. The man remains a figurehead, despite Oldman's alternately spirited and affectionate performance, and Darkest Hour struggles to reconcile the blustering quirks of the man with the masterly oratory of the leader.
Gary Oldman (Winston Churchill), Lily James (Elizabeth Layton), Ben Mendelsohn (King George VI), Kristin Scott Thomas (Clementine Churchill), Stephen Dillane (Viscount Halifax), Samuel West (Sir Anthony Eden), Ronald Pickup (Neville Chamberlain).
Directed by Joe Wright and written by Anthony McCarten.
Rated PG-13 (thematic material).
Released in select cities on November 22, 2017.