Darkest Hour (2017, Dir. Joe Wright):
We shall go on to the end, we shall fight in France, we shall fight on the seas and oceans, we shall fight with growing confidence and growing strength in the air, we shall defend our Island, whatever the cost may be, we shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills; we shall never surrender, and even if, which I do not for a moment believe, this Island or a large part of it were subjugated and starving, then our Empire beyond the seas, armed and guarded by the British Fleet, would carry on the struggle, until, in God’s good time, the New World, with all its power and might, steps forth to the rescue and the liberation of the old.
— Winston Churchill, June 4, 1940
Darkest Hour opens on newsreel footage: Nazi ranks and artillery arranged in imposing lines, moving in lockstep, relentless and united. Then we smash cut to a squabbling British House of Commons, truly a house divided. It’s early May 1940 and prime minister Neville “peace in our time” Chamberlain is on the outs. Who will step in to fill his shoes, guide Britain out of her pre-war malaise, and armor her up as she faces down what looks to be an invincible enemy? Gary Oldman, of course.
The story of how Winston Churchill (Oldman), the man with the checkered past, the bulldog disposition and a way with words, managed to pull England together in the face of Nazi domination within the space of a short month, would seem to be tailor-made for a riveting watch. For those who aren’t familiar with the history behind the events, Darkest Hour helpfully fills in the blanks, but the film’s primary objective is to serve as an actorly tour-de-force for Oldman, nearly unrecognizable under layers of makeup and gruff attitude. As is common for these kinds of bio-pics, we’re introduced to Winston through the eyes of a common bloke — in this case the bloke is Churchill’s new secretary Miss Leyton (Lily James, likable in a nothing role). In short order, Mr. Churchill is revealed to be an eccentric, irascible, but essentially decent sort, and from there we’re thrust into a world of political gambits, both internal and external, as the newly minted prime minister must win over the favor of the doves who oppose his “victory at all costs” philosophy, as well as somehow rescue what is left of the British army in France before it is massacred, with the future of the Empire and possibly the free world in the balance. The prime question on which everything depends: Should England broker a peace with Germany, and avoid complete annihilation, or fight to the bitter end? A battler through and through, Churchill stumps for the latter option (“You cannot reason with a tiger when your head is in his mouth!” he roars), but even as he assures the British public that everything in Europe is quite all right (talk about fake news), he finds himself at a crisis point of policy and conscience.
Rousing stuff, you would think. Only not really. Darkest Hour takes pains to get the period details correct, right down to the grungy bunkers that Churchill and his war council sequester themselves in. But when it comes to character interplay, Anthony McCarten’s script is strictly by the book. Naturally Churchill’s opponents, including the wily Viscount Halifax (Stephen Dillane) look down their noses at the uncouth bounder, and look to out-manuever and undermine him at every opportunity. Of course both Churchill and England find redemption at the eleventh hour, culminating in a reverberant finale. It should also be no surprise that there’s a dutiful wife in the background (Kristin Scott-Thomas) to provide a supportive pep talk at a key moment. And yes, you can count on an overflow of explanatory dialogue that tells you what you need to know about Winston the man. “You are here because you are imperfect,” his wife informs him (and us). “You are wise because you have doubts.” Churchill even helpfully describes himself, just in case you wondered what kind of guy he is: “My emotions are unbridled…in my family, we lack the gift of temperance.” Is there an apocryphal moment in which Churchill comes face-to-face with members of the public for a chat, leaving him both inspired and in tears? You might as well ask if the sun ever sets on the British Empire.
Director Joe Wright does what he can with this simplistic stuff, but he’s out of his element. He functions best with genteel dramas, where he can dirty things up a bit and tease the conflicting passions out of his characters (i.e., his recent versions of Pride and Prejudice and Anna Karenina). In Darkest Hour he manages to pull off a few nifty moves: Often the camera is perched far above his subjects, as if ruminating on the future of everything from on high. The scenes in Parliament are bathed in shadows and soft-glow light, like a painting by a Dutch master. A single shot of British civilian boats coming to the rescue of soldiers in France is more stirring than the entirety of Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk. Still, there’s only so much he can do with the baggy narrative, which shrugs off every chance at drama: sure there’s a certain tension in witnessing Britain struggling to preserve itself as a civilization, but when every character’s motivation and worth are static from the start, where is there left to go? Darkest Hour brings on the pomp and circumstance (Dario Marianelli’s grand soundtrack eggs us on whenever we’re expected to nod approvingly at Churchill’s gumption), at the expense of depth.
Still, even at its most cliché, the movie does have Oldman, in the kind of performance that’s perfectly calibrated for Oscar nominations (that’s not necessarily a knock). The screenplay might ultimately portray Churchill as a cuddly curmudgeon, but Oldman will have none of it: grunting and growling, mostly intelligible but sometimes not, he makes us believe in him as a real character even as the script insists on sanctifying him. “I don’t want you to be disliked,” his wife advises him. His deadpan response: “More than I already am?” Darkest Hour is at its best when Churchill is forced to meet with King George VI (a wry Ben Mendelsohn) for bull sessions over tea. The two of them — pampered, shy royalty and brusque, pudgy everyman — are as unlikely a pair you could imagine, yet they bond because they’re both misfits at heart, and their tête-à-têtes prove to be the film’s slyest, funniest moments. Elsewhere, Darkest Hour is a black-and-white character study that eventually boils down to a simple prescription for being a good leader: Only when you bend your ear to the voice of the public can you bend the wills of your opponents. A good idea in theory, but if there’s anything that the world has shown us in the past century, it’s that claiming to represent the voice of the people can be just as much a con job as a good piece of politicking. “Be yourself,” Mrs. Churchill says to her husband as he heads out to work. “And which self should I be today?” he wonders. Darkest Hour expends much effort to create the best version of Winston Churchill that can be imagined. If not for Oldman, Winston Churchill the human would have been lost to us completely.