Director: Joe Wright
Screenwriter: Anthony McCarten
Cast: Gary Oldman, Kristin Scott Thomas, Lily James, Stephen Dillane, Ronald Pickup, Ben Mendelsohn
Nominations: Picture, Actor – Gary Oldman, Cinematography, Production Design, Costume Design, Makeup & Hairstyling
Wins: Actor – Gary Oldman, Makeup & Hairstyling
When it comes to big-screen depictions of 20th century persons, Winston Churchill is up there among the most frequently portrayed, with more than 30 films featuring him at some point in his life. His legacy was so fondly remembered in the United Kingdom that in 2002 he was voted the greatest Briton in history. It makes sense that even in 2020, more than 55 years after his death and 80 years after his first term as prime minister, Churchill remains a figure of great interest: he led England through the horrors of Word War II, he was steadfast in his ideals and convictions, and he gave some of the most important and memorable speeches of the 20th century.
Because of the plethora films featuring him, it’s key for filmmakers to find new approaches to telling a Churchill story. Darkest Hour follows the template used by Lincoln (Steven Spielberg, 2012) by focusing on a single event in a great man’s life and showing the internal and intimate struggles and doubt he went through as he fought for to achieve his goal. The event for Darkest Hour: Churchill’s elevation to prime minister and the execution of Operation Dynamo (aka, the Dunkirk evacuation, which took place over the course of three weeks, from mid-May to early June in 1940. Considering the immense pressure of rescuing more than 335,000 troops from soon-to-be enemy territory, that stress becomes close to unbearable when you add in it was the first major tactical decision of the new prime minister.
This pressure is fantastically shown via clever use of mise-en-scène. The best example is the setting of the Cabinet War Rooms. The underground facility maintains a visual reminder of the world closing in on Churchill, what with the compact tunnels and lighting that leaves the walls in the dark—a subtle hint at the lurking evil of the Nazis eventual takeover of most of continental Europe.
Another way the film makes its Churchill standout is through Gary Oldman’s take on the leader. Oldman gives Churchill the expected confidence and argumentative nature we’ve come to known, but he also brings a surprising vulnerability to him as well. Even though he’s buried under makeup to better look like Churchill, Oldman’s eyes are unmistakable; and Oldman’s ability to act with his eyes is among the very best of any actors working today. He can show menace and intimidation, sure, but when he has to show hopelessness and loss, Oldman doesn’t hold back. For as harsh and aggressive as Churchill can be, we care about him all the more because of the innocence Oldman displays, especially through his eyes.
It’s a given that the actual evacuation of Dunkirk is more exciting than the planning of it (see Dunkirk [Christopher Nolan, 2017], a fellow Best Picture nominee at the 90th Academy Awards ceremony), but Darkest Hour does the more laborious task well. The film pops along at a brisk pace and even though we know the eventual outcome—an irrelevant fact—seeing how such an incredible plan came together and the politics that almost brought it down is fascinating and engaging. It’s a wonderful companion piece to Nolan’s film, but it easily stands on its own with aplomb.