With the war against the Nazis not going well for Britain, Parliament has called for Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain (Ronald Pickup) to resign. The first choice as his successor is Viscount Halifax (Stephen Dillane). When Halifax declines, the party must find another candidate who will be accepted by the other party. Their search leads them to Winston Churchill (Gary Oldman). Churchill is loud and stubborn, but is seen as someone strong enough to lead them through the war.
As the war progresses, Parliament presses Prime Minister Churchill to negotiate with Germany to avoid a full-scale attack. Churchill does not trust the Germans, and declines any talk of negotiations. This causes some members of Parliament to devise a plan for a vote of no confidence in Churchill.
At the same time, British forces in France had been cornered on the beach in Dunkirk by the Germans. Churchill starts Operation Dynamo which employed local boat owners to sail to Dunkirk to rescue their soldiers. The defeat at Dunkirk has King George VI (Ben Mendelsohn) considering whether he should leave Britain to avoid being captured or killed, or to remain and continue the war, hoping to defeat the Germans.
Darkest Hours is based on the actual events in Britain during the start of World War II. It shows how Churchill came to be the Prime Minister and eventually lead his country through the war.
Gary Oldman is almost unrecognizable as the portly, cigar smoking, Winston Churchill. The costumes and makeup are top-notch in this film. That isn’t to discount Oldman’s performance. He seems to have mastered Churchill’s personality as demanding and unrelenting. Lily James plays Elizabeth Layton, Churchill’s secretary, who was almost fired as soon as she started, thanks to Churchill’s stubbornness. Only his wife Clementine, played by Kristin Scott Thomas, seemed to be the only one who could wrangle in his temper and have any sort of control over the man. The rest of the cast does adequately, but they are more minor parts in comparison with Oldman, James, and Thomas.
Darkest Hour can best be viewed as a companion to Dunkirk, one of its Best Picture competitors. Where Dunkirk shows the events from the soldiers’ point of view, Darkest Hour gives the explanation and story behind the rescue attempt that was missing. I would recommend watching Dunkirk before this film, as the result of the attempt is spelled out directly in this film – another important bit that was missing. It is an interesting pairing that to truly appreciate either of these films, you need to see the other. If this was not the intention with both films being released the same year, it is an amazing coincidence.
While I don’t know that it necessarily deserves a Best Picture nomination, the nods for Actor, Makeup, Costume, and Production Design are definitely earned. Filmed mostly in more intimate shots, this is a film that you could just as well watch at home and still get the full effect. It is worth a watch, even if you aren’t just checking off your Oscar list.