Although he was the first to recognise the threat of Hitler, Winston Churchill (Gary Oldman) assumes the position of Prime Minister with the knowledge that he has enemies both aboard and at home - and must battle fiercely against both.
Although it comes a few months after Dunkirk, there's no denying that Darkest Hour has some common DNA beyond the fact that they're set more or less in the same period. It's more the idea of pressure and how personalities and people cope with it. With Dunkirk, the threat was sharp and constant and used music, texture and cinematic techniques to evoke this. The performances by the cast were reactionary in the sense that the spectacle around them was just as important and stated as theirs. With Darkest Hour, it's held up by performance alone - namely Gary Oldman, who gives one of his best in years.
The film opens with Oldman's Churchill attempt to form a cabinet from his enemies with the knowledge that he'll have to convince the most ardent of them of his plans. Leading the charge against him is Lord Halifax, played by the ever-reliable Stephen Dillane. In a sort of ying-to-his-yang, Dillane's performance is calm, measured and understated whilst Oldman bellows across the table at him like it's a warzone. The film works against the clock, with dates flashing on the screen that indicate just how desperate the situation is becoming and how grave the odds are against them. Throughout it all, Churchill rarely seems to falter - at least, that's the appearance of it.
What makes Oldman's performance so special is the fact that for all the bluster and screaming, it shows the support system around him that enabled him such confidence. The ease with which he converses with his wife, played by Kristen Scott Thomas, and shares a laugh with his secretary Lily James means that Churchill is brought down from a mythic level. That being said, the film absolutely lionises him in other parts - particularly in the scenes where he addresses the richly designed houses of Parliament and the cramped space of his War Cabinet room. Throughout it all, Oldman is vital and vivid in both tone and discipline. As with his previous work, he so ably disappears into the role - with the help of some excellent makeup and costume to boot.
Like a lot of Joe Wright's films, there's an element of somewhat overbearing presence and the film does hammer home certain points a bit too much. As the situation becomes more dire, you see Churchill framed in ever-tightening boxes and when he first addresses the nation, it's bathed in red to put everyone on notice. It's more than a little showy, especially when you consider it next to Christopher Nolan's more natural methods - but, again, the two aren't meant to be compared in such a way. Darkest Hour plays more like a character drama than a war movie, but the manner in which Churchill marches through the corridors of his bunker feels something akin to Das Boot or The Hunt For Red October. It works, for the most part, but again it feels like Wright is almost desperate to put him stamp on it that it becomes almost contrived.
Overall, Darkest Hour mostly connects through Gary Oldman's performance and interactions with the supporting cast. While it may not have the same visceral impact as other war movies, it holds up to the pressure it faces and then some.