In the past few years, there appears to have been a renewed interest in the great Prime Minister Winston Churchill, evident by there being several productions focusing on him, or projects that have him as an important character in British history. In 2016, we were treated to a brilliant, Emmy-winning performance from John Lithgow in “The Crown,” while last summer, there was a poorly-received film simply titled “Churchill” that featured Brian Cox. Then there was Joe Wright’s “Darkest Hour,” an awards season favorite that earned nine BAFTA nominations (winning two) and six Oscar nods, in which Gary Oldman gives one of the standout performances of his career. However, a great performance can only get a film so far, which begs the question: Does everything else about this biopic stack up to a masterful portrayal, or is there nothing else to be had beyond it?
In 1940, the Nazis have invaded several European countries. Having lost confidence in their leader, Neville Chamberlain (Ronald Pickup), Winston Churchill (Gary Oldman) is chosen as the new Prime Minister of England in hopes that he will be able to lead the country to victory over Germany. He doesn’t have the best of records, and he’s certainly not the most conventional choice, but he’s one of very few candidates that the parties can agree on. With support from his wife, Clemmie (Kristin Scott Thomas), we witness Winston trying to deal with seemingly insurmountable odds as the war keeps getting worse, culminating in the Dunkirk incident. On top of this, he has to deal with others going behind his back as they try to stage a coup due to Winton’s unwillingness to compromise with the Germans. With defeat seeming inevitable, he must ultimately choose whether England enters negotiations or fights on to the bitter end.
As you can see, “Darkest Hour” deals with one of the most pivotal and volatile chapters in British history, a time where strong leadership was needed, and everything had to be put at risk for the sake of the nation. The telling of these first five weeks of Churchill’s time as Prime Minister should be suitably tense, thrilling, and compelling, and while Wright’s film (from a screenplay by Anthony McCarten) is mostly successful in these areas, one can’t help but escape the fact that it’s a rather average telling of the events. However, this isn’t particularly a bad thing, for the film does tell the events quite capably, and with a fair amount of flair to spare.
This, of course, refers to the film’s dashing production design, cinematography, makeup, and costumes, all of which earned Academy Award nominations. While the narrative is executed in a somewhat straightforward, moderate fashion, there’s no denying that it has a grand sense of style, shown most vividly in the film’s impeccable period designs, which do a fantastic job of transporting you back to these remarkable events from nearly 80 years ago. If anything, the film is a visual triumph, for if the historical intrigue isn’t enough to keep you going, then at least you’ll no doubt be impressed by its artistic aesthetic.
However, the main reason the film has been getting as much buzz as it has, and for which it has been earning the most awards, is Gary Oldman’s brilliant performance as Winston Churchill. Despite being under what must be several pounds of incredible makeup, Oldman gives a finely-tuned, compelling, and spellbinding turn as the Prime Minister, utilizing Churchill’s vocal and physical mannerisms to great effect. Aside from a few stray moments where you can hear something close to Oldman’s own voice, he disappears completely into the character, becoming very chameleon-like as he always does. The performance has already earned him numerous accolades, including the Golden Globe, SAG, and BAFTA Awards. At this point, there’s absolutely no doubt that the Oscar will be his next week.
“Darkest Hour” basically boils down to a film with an average execution, but with great visual appeal and a commanding performance from the amazing Gary Oldman. One can only imagine how great the film would have been if the material had been on the same level as the acting, but when you get the chance to hear Oldman deliver what has been determined as three of the greatest speeches ever written (in a five-week period no less), then it hardly seems to matter. While there may not be much else that ends up getting remembered about the film, this epic portrayal of Churchill certainly will go down in history. If for no other purpose, it remains the primary reason the film is worth seeing, for the simple fact of the matter is that a performance like this doesn’t come around every day.
“Darkest Hour” comes to Blu-ray in a 1.85:1, 1080p High Definition transfer of outstanding quality. Though much of the film is somewhat dark and dreary, the picture remains beautifully sharp and clear, highlighting the film’s incredible Oscar-nominated cinematography, production design, costumes, and makeup. The Dolby ATMOS Audio is equally impressive, giving you all of the dialogue and Oscar winner Dario Marianelli’s score in excellent quality. Overall, the film has been given excellent treatment, leaving little room for complaint.
Feature Commentary with Director Joe Wright: A somewhat ho-hum commentary in which the director gives a few interesting tidbits, but also spends a lot of time just describing what’s on the screen.
Into Darkest Hour (8 Minutes): A brief featurette that goes behind the scenes of the making of the film, featuring short pieces of interviews with the cast and crew.
Gary Oldman: Becoming Churchill (4 Minutes): Another brief featurette that takes a look at Gary Oldman’s incredible transformation into Winston Churchill.
Joe Wright’s “Darkest Hour” may be a little average in its telling of these critical events of WWII, but what it lacks in narrative power, it more than makes up for with a grand sense of style and a phenomenal performance from Gary Oldman as Winston Churchill. The film has earned six Academy Award nominations, two of which it seems certain to win (Best Actor and Best Makeup), and while a Best Picture nomination may have been a bit of a stretch, it remains easy enough to recommend just to see one of the very best performances of last year.