Some of history’s biggest decisions are often made in the most personal of moments. Such is the sense in Darkest Hour’s most memorable frame — a seated Winston Churchill (Gary Oldman, The Dark Knight, Fifth Element) on the phone with American president Franklin Roosevelt, requesting an exchange for British purchased fighter planes.
The scene takes place in a quiet room in the underground quarters of Parliament, lit by a small light, with the surrounding blackness seemingly narrowing the shot’s aspect ratio. Much of the film is similar, with these intimate moments of conversation, decision and indecision all weaving together to make a collective historical narrative.
Centered around Hitler’s domination of the European mainland in spring 1940, the film deals with how new prime minister Winston Churchill will manage the growing threat of German advancement to the British island.
Darkest Hour is a film that succeeds due to its precise technique. In the spirit of All the President’s Men and Spotlight the film plays like a made-for (high end) television drama. Dialogue is the prominent element driving action. Cuts happen quick, frames are tight and shot composition is simple, yet elegant. This style allows the performance of Gary Oldman to carry the film, and creates a Churchill character study taking place within a larger historical context.
Most of Darkest Hour’s shots are close-ups and mediums, with wider frames of British royal and governmental halls edited in as transitional sequences between the important conversations that happen in the small rooms of those very buildings. The viewer spends a majority of the film close to Oldman and the supporting cast, and only catches brief glimpses of the outside world and its citizens.
As the camera stays close to the actors, the viewer is able to see nuances of politics, and particularly from Churchill, a great deal of anxiety and angst. Larger, sparser shots of British structures remind the viewer of the ominous threat of the advancing Nazi army and the institutional legacy under threat. These two shot types, juxtaposed, opine that history; while grand in its scope, is very much a matter of the decisions of humans — who are both talented and fallible.
The work of production designer Sarah Greenwood (Beauty and the Beast, 2017) and cinematographer Bruno Delbonnel (Inside Llewyn Davis) combine to add emotional fullness to the film. While the film takes place in May and June, the blacks and grays of the skies, backdrops and wardrobes add a tone of appropriate bleakness and desaturation to the screen, and dim-lit rooms serve as quiet, understated settings for the characters, whose faces illuminate from the few light sources surrounding them. These technical elements ultimately support the actors and their dialogue, as well as underline the uncertainty and importance of the historical moment.
Exceptionally well-directed, written, acted and shot, Joe Wright’s (Atonement) Darkest Hour is an engaging drama that sheds lights on one of the 20th century’s darkest and most pivotal moments. And by virtue of the film’s technical elements, Darkest Hour allows us to examine the characters and milieu that defined those moments. While not a historically flawless film — indeed some scenes play a bit unrealistic — the movie nevertheless achieves its prime objective of showcasing the turbulence and significance of May 1940, and the man who turned the tide for the better.
Author’s note: this film is a great complement to Christopher Nolan’s “Dunkirk” (2017), as Dunkirk is an important plot element in “Darkest Hour.” Coincidentally, Christopher Nolan directed Gary Oldman in the Batman trilogy.