“Darkest Hour,” the new Churchill biopic starring Gary Oldman, is currently playing at the Martha’s Vineyard Film Center. Complete with facial prosthetics and a fat suit, the transformed Oldman is in line for an Oscar nomination.
A companion film to “Dunkirk” in subject, “Darkest Hour” covers the WWII period leading up to the evacuation of 300,000 British forces pinned down by Nazi troops on the northern French coast at Dunkirk. That was known as Operation Dynamo, and took place May 26 to June 4, 1940.
Even though not a popular choice for prime minister, Churchill is about to replace Neville Chamberlain (Ronald Pickup), who is suffering from terminal cancer. Churchill is the only Conservative the Labour opposition approves, and it is a position he has dreamed of for much of his career.
“Darkest Hour” follows the decisions Churchill must make over a six-week period in May and June 1940, investing them with tension and suspense even though we know how events will ultimately turn out. Learning of the pressure Churchill is under to sign a peace accord with Hitler, the viewer will realize how high the stakes were. Denmark and Norway had already surrendered, and France and Belgium were soon to follow.
Those viewers who like the Sturm und Drang of bomb strikes, firepower, and violence may prefer “Dunkirk.” Others will find director Joe Wright’s tightly focused approach, which explores the political ideas and maneuvers behind England’s position, intriguing and revealing. It is a powerful history lesson.
Buttressed by Anthony McCarten’s script, Wright invests “Darkest Hour” with plenty of cinematic action. Shots of citizens hurrying through London animate a sense of the city and times. In one shocking moment, little boys wearing Hitler masks cross a crowded street. The claustrophobic rooms and corridors of the subterranean War Rooms, where so many decisions were made, create another compelling visual effect. Today tourists can visit these rooms and experience what the period must have been like.
Touches of humor leaven the sense of impending doom. When asked how he manages all his drinking, Churchill’s one-word reply is “Practice.”
Although women not surprisingly play minor roles, their presence enriches the story. In private moments with his wife Clementine (Kristin Scott Thomas), Churchill reveals the doubts he has about what course of action to take. “You are strong because you are imperfect. You are wise because you have doubts,” Clemmy assures him.
Churchill’s relationship with his private secretary, Elizabeth Layton (Lily James), who actually didn’t begin working for him until a year later, is less persuasive. Brought in no doubt to balance the mostly male cast of characters, she is a hero-worshipping young woman who types furiously and mouths her boss’ speeches from the Parliament gallery.
Those rousing speeches remain inspiring, clear examples of how Churchill earned public support. As his nemesis Lord Halifax (Stephen Dillane) observes, “He’s mobilized the English language and sent it into battle.” At one point, Churchill travels in the Underground (subway) with a group of ordinary citizens. Although the scene is entirely fabricated, it’s still fun to watch this celebrated figure develop rapport with his public.
Unlike “The Crown,” where John Lithgow’s Churchill — he is another of the 200 actors who have played the prime minister — has entered his twilight years, “Darkest Hour” shows this legendary figure in his prime. Brilliantly brought to life by Oldman, he is a hero for the time. Would there were more figures like him today.
For information and tickets for this and other Film Center films, see mvfilmsociety.com. The Capawock Theater has closed for the season.