“Let us therefore brace ourselves to our duties, and so bear ourselves that, if the British Empire and its Commonwealth last for a thousand years, men will still say, ‘This was their finest hour’.” – Winston Churchill, addressing the House of Commons on June 18, 1940.
I’m going to kick off my Oscar challenge using the fine art of random selection. First up is the Best Picture nominee, Darkest Hour. This historical drama earned a total of 6 nominations, which I have listed below.
Now as a reminder, I am not a movie reviewer by trade. You’ll figure this out almost immediately because I am likely to be a little all over the place since I’m working off my train of thought. As scary as that may seem!
Best Picture, Best Actor, Best Costume Design, Best Cinematography, Best Production Design, Best Makeup
The movie is a historical drama about Winston Churchill, fresh off his somewhat unpopular appointment as Britain’s Prime Minister in the early stages of World War II. The film is focused on the 4-week period in 1940 where Winston Churchill ultimately changes the course of World War II and effectively, world history. The central storyline is Churchill’s dilemma of whether Britain should negotiate with Hitler, which I would imagine would have put Britain under control of the Nazi party, or lead Britain to fight against Hitler and his Nazi party.
Some Background Commentary (largely irrelevant)
I am pro-historical drama. So as a self-professed nerd, seeing this film was a no brainer, and I saw it well before awards season when it was initially released. I like history, I’ve read quite a few books on historical subjects, and the world wars, and I always enjoyed my history courses in school. Again, nerd-alert. Some people don’t care for the historical dramas. One reason is because they are predictable. I certainly get that and to each their own. Sure, we know how this story ends going into it. That’s what makes it history. But, like Titanic – I mean we all knew that ship was going down thanks to an iceberg that was right ahead – we still saw the movie because we wanted the visual.
I knew a little about Winston Churchill before seeing the movie and I was very familiar with the reference made in the film’s title. I certainly knew what came after the speech. But that being said, I really did not know much about how that speech came to be and the circumstances around it and around his appointment as Prime Minister. So, I was certainly intrigued by the story line.
Overall I think this movie was well cast and the acting was pretty solid stuff. You have a great lead in Gary Oldman and a solid supporting cast. From a supporting cast perspective, I thought the actor playing King George IV (the story of King George IV was the king in the King’s Speech movie from a few years ago) did an excellent job, especially with how he blended the infamous stutter into his character. The actress playing his wife also had a solid performance and she was hard to not like.
Let’s talk about Gary Oldman for a minute. He’s been around for decades and you might remember him from other projects like Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, Sid and Nancy, several of the Harry Potter movies, Air Force One, the Christopher Nolan Batman movies, and many others. He’s one of those actors that typically has some pretty solid roles, and we remember him, he has a familiar face, but he seems to kind of fly under the radar.
An aside – I’ll be completely honest. When I first saw previews for Darkest Hour and even during the movie, I kept saying, “who the hell is that?” I mean superficially, Gary Oldman is a lean individual, and Winston…well, he wasn’t a lean individual. Major props to the makeup and design crew on the film – Gary Oldman wasn’t Gary playing Winston, he was simply Winston Churchill in a movie about Winston Churchill. I think if you can accomplish that purely from a make-up standpoint, then those make-up folks probably have earned an Oscar. I hope they have written an acceptance speech; I suspect they may need it.
Back to Gary as Winston. I would think it has to be somewhat of a daunting task to take on such a well known figure in world history, who has been played by many different actors. The expectations certainly must be high. After watching the film, I think he really nailed it. I was certainly sold, especially since he pulled in some well-timed wit and humor, which is something Churchill was known for. Winston Churchill was an impactful and influential speaker. Many of his speeches are focal points in the cliff-notes of world history; we still talk about them, they are still taught in history classes, we still remember some of his popular phrases. Gary Oldman really brought those speeches to life, which I frankly think is really impressive given how iconic those speeches were. And I think that’s when you forgot you were watching Gary emulate Winston, and were simply watching a rousing rally-speech during World War II.
I think one thing to keep in mind is that while Winston Churchill had many major historical moments during his political career, this is just 4-weeks of it. This isn’t a film about how Winston Churchill won the people of Britain over during WWII and his 2 separate stints as Prime Minister, and it is not a biopic (I don’t care what people say), so don’t expect to get the full scoop on Churchill in this movie.
I found the film to be a pretty straight-forward, day-by-day playbook of the 4-weeks leading up to the famed ‘darkest hour’ speech. My one complaint would be that the film never really slowed down (although I gather that was the point). Aside from that, it’s a simple film, that is well executed, that takes something many are really familiar with historically and gives you a new perspective on it. It’s not so much about the speech and the outcome that is the focus of the film, it’s all about the nuances of the weeks that lead up to that. Britain was in the crapper, and Churchill has to figure out how to dig out of that.
There were a couple of minor storylines that I liked as well. I really enjoyed the progression of the relationship between King George IV and Winston Churchill. There’s a scene towards the latter part of the film where the King visits Churchill at Churchill’s home and gives Churchill his full support. It was hopeful and I’m not sure how you can walk away from this movie and not feel good about that scene. I also really liked the storyline of his assistant. It brought a sense of humor to the film in places, but the storyline of her brother being in Dunkirk (which was somewhat predictable) added a nice additional element to the film.
Probably my favorite scene of the movie was when Churchill took the subway. I think it really got to the core of Churchill’s personality – which he was both loved and hated for. The scene was witty and memorable. It was really quite perfect. If there was any criticism of that scene, it’s that it is not historically true. I’m fairly positive he didn’t take a trip to the London Underground in real-life. But honestly, who really cares if it is true or not. This is a movie and that scene was the best scene of the movie.
Gary Oldman’s performance makes this film deserving of a best picture nomination and makes him a frontrunner for best actor, my opinion of course. I’m not sure any actor should voluntarily take on the role of Churchill in other films in the future – I don’t think you can top the Gary Oldman Winston Churchill. He was that good. Overall, it’s a great historical drama with really well-placed wit and well-paced dialogue and a movie that I would watch again – I highly recommend you go check it out.
One tip. Watch Darkest Hour before you watch Dunkirk.
And sorry for the length. I will learn to edit down as I work my way through the other films!