Darkest Hour review – the woman behind a very great man

Kristin Scott Thomas as Clemmie Churchill brings welcome light to Joe Wright’s biopic of our feted wartime leader

In this handsomely mounted but somewhat disingenuous war film from Joe Wright, words, rather than guns, are the main weapons. And wielded by Winston Churchill (Gary Oldman, peering beadily from behind a fortification of quivering prosthetics and a battery of smouldering cigars), words can be every bit as persuasive as bullets.

The film, which covers Churchill’s uncertain first few weeks in the role of prime minister of a country poised on the brink of war, works best as a celebration of the art of stirring oratory. Playing out in airless, oak-panelled Westminster boardrooms and the crepuscular tunnels of the Cabinet War Rooms, it is unapologetically wordy. And at its best, this showcase for Churchill’s ornate verbal flourishes is rousing and satisfying.

But make no mistake, this is also a movie that is packed to the dusty rafters with blustering old blokes, harrumphing and politely stabbing each other in the back. Wright is clearly well aware of the potential for the kind of stuffiness that hampered last year’s Brian Cox-starring Churchill, and he deploys every tool at his disposal to sidestep dramatic inertia. The frame is sliced and carved with bayonets of piercing light; the ever-restless camera is hurled skywards to give a Spitfire’s eye view of the action below, before plummeting to earth again.

Like Wright’s direction, Oldman’s Golden Globe-winning performance is forceful, showy and somewhat belligerent. Kristin Scott Thomas, playing Clemmie Churchill, is a crisp and crucial antidote to all the pugnacious growling.

Less successful is the seeding of the film with cosy British signifiers. A scene that combines a shot of a full English breakfast and a reference to spotted dick in just a few seconds starts to feel like parody. But the most jarring misjudgment is an excruciating folly in which Churchill lumbers out of his car and on to the London underground, holding a mini-referendum among the commuters on whether to plead for peace or go to battle. It’s patronising, contrived and emits such a stench of artificiality that it makes your sinuses sting.

Watch a trailer for Darkest Hour.


Wendy Ide

The GuardianTramp

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