Oscar Preview: Darkest Hour

Director: Joe Wright
Cast: Gary Oldman, Lily James, Kristin Scott Thomas, Ben Mendelsohn, Stephen Dillane & Ronald Pickup
Runtime: 125 mins

It’s interesting that two of the Best Picture nominees for this year’s Academy Awards, both Darkest Hour and Dunkirk, focus around the same moment in history. While Christopher Nolan’s suspense-filled thriller is based in the field, Joe Wright’s biopic focuses on one of the most important weapons in a war – words. The film focuses on Winston Churchill’s wobbly first few weeks in power in Great Britain during the Second World War. Churchill (Gary Oldman) takes on the unenviable task of leading a country during the absolutely crucial stages of war, and must prove to his naysayers that he is capable of such a role, ultimately highlighting the decisions he made that influenced the turn of the war, and his powerful speeches that kept the country going during such a turbulent time.

It is hard to support a film that is so blatantly biased in favour of the British Empire. It is especially cruel to us poor Irish to include an incredibly hypocritical scene where Churchill talks passionately about how awful it would be for the Nazis to come in and take over their country and put up their flags (yes, must be terrible!), but it is worth putting that aside and judging the movie for what it is.

The general story of the film seems… familiar. It is no easy feat to recreate a story that has been done so many times before, and while Churchill is no doubt an interesting character, there’s only so much reinventing you can do of his story before digressing too far from the truth. The dialogue often felt overwrought, and it would not feel out of place in a TV adaptation of the same story. For the big screen however, it seemed to fall somewhat short, lacking a more natural feel and seeming almost too scripted, which a film should really avoid.

However, in terms of cinematography and general filmmaking finesse, Darkest Hour is a real treat, and this is what saves it. Director Joe Wright has an interesting eye for his scenes, often eliminating all the excess information on the screen to highlight Churchill’s isolation in a given moment, which so successfully conveys how alone he no doubt felt when everything seemed to be going against him. He also succeeded in capturing the almost cramped, busy atmosphere of what parliament must have been like during wartime. While the film mainly focuses on the ‘behind the scenes’ aspect of the war, the camera work for the few war scenes is exceptional. The top down view of explosions manages to keep the audience at a distance from the war, ensuring that the film does not lose its impact as a backstage war film, but still capturing the devastation of these events very effectively.

With regards to casting, Gary Oldman was exceptional as Churchill. He was unrecognisable in both appearance, speech and even manner (and no doubt the makeup department for this film are well deserving of any awards they may receive). Oldman is inspiring when he needs to be, funny when he needs to be, and captures the stress that Churchill must have been under wonderfully. He does not convey Churchill as a perfect man, making a special effort to portray his flaws as best as possible, but ultimately his performance packs a punch that I have never seen from Oldman. While he seemed physically less suited to take on the role, his performance is big enough to make the viewer almost forget who we are watching.

Overall, if you can put aside the audacious ‘hurrah the British Empire’ attitude that this film makes no attempt to avoid, then it is no doubt an incredibly well made film. While the story is somewhat straightforward and not hugely innovative, Joe Wright’s technical decisions about the film boost it from something you would see on BBC to a solid awards contender. While I doubt the film will be successful against some stiff competition in the Best Picture category, I would be surprised if Gary Oldman is not a frontrunner to scoop the Best Actor in a Leading Role prize.


Ciara Dillon – Film Editor

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