Overview: Winston Churchill takes over as Prime Minister of the United Kingdom at a crucial point in World War II. Focus Features; 2017; Rated R; 125 minutes.
Help Wanted: In Darkest Hour, we first meet Winston Churchill in the dark. He’s lying in a robe in bed, and strikes a match temporarily illuminating the entire room before it fades back to black. Soon, he’s dictating words to a young female typist, who mistakenly types his memo single spaced. Churchill likes—no, demands—that things be double spaced. The young typist leaves the room in embarrassment and tears.
It’s 1940 and World War II is going the Germans’ way. They’ve taken Poland, Czechoslovakia and Norway, and Belgium and France aren’t far behind. The British Army is being beaten back to the Western French shores, the entire lot of them pinned to the beaches of Dunkirk and Calais. Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain, due to his perceived inaction, has lost the confidence of the government. In a bit of a cartoonish opening scene, Chamberlain can barely be heard speaking to Parliament over the angry shouts of disdain from the hundreds of the government officials pouring down over the benches and balconies. New leadership is needed.
Viscount Halifax seems to be the preferred choice by many in the party, as well as the crown, but he turns the down the role. The only other choice suitable to appease the opposition party is Churchill, though he is not popular. A short montage offers opinions on Churchill from a number of people. Among the criticisms we hear: He’s in love with the sound of his own voice; the only thing he cares about is himself; he’s delusional. Sounds like someone we know.
Brash and Confident: Darkest Hour, the latest film by Joe Wright (Atonement, Anna Karenina) tells the story of the early, crucial days of Churchill’s leadership, when he has to make the decision that shaped the future of the Western world; whether to give in to Hitler and enter peace talks, or fight back. The film comes to us at a time when there’s a crisis of global leadership, thanks in part to an American President who many would say is also delusional and in completely in love with himself. Obviously (obviously!) there is no comparing the two men. The film shows us that Churchill, however, can mitigate his flaws, leaning away from destructive outcomes, because of his wisdom. Darkest Hour is a story about the importance of intelligent leadership, communication and how, while words and statements can often be symbolic, those symbols carry actual meaning.
The movie features a series of conversations and arguments between Churchill and whomever he’s sitting across from at a given moment. It’s the type of movie that carries its dramatic weight in verbal barbs; powerful men trying to gain the upper hand with a perfectly worded point. This format gets a bit tiresome after a while, but two major aspects hold our attention. Visually, Wright and cinematographer Bruno Delbonnel bake the movie in a smoky, shadowy aesthetic. Much of the film takes place in Churchill and his war cabinet’s cramped, underground maze of offices, and the look and tone of the film successfully invoke a sense of both claustrophobia and uncertainty. The production design and costuming adds an extra layer of power and authenticity.
But the main and reason this all really works is Gary Oldman’s lead performance as Churchill. This is one of those overwhelming, towering performances that you’ll remember even if it’s not your preferred dramatic portrayal. Oldman simultaneously pulls off a convincing impersonation while also fully inhabiting a character, one with the weight of the world on his shoulders. Though Oldman is basically unrecognizable, he’s able to convincingly render the stress on Churchill, whether it’s through a tremble of the lips or a reversal of tone of voice. It’s the movie’s only memorable performance—Lily James as the typist, Kristin Scott Thomas as Churchill’s wife, Ben Mendelsohn as King George IV and Stephen Dillane as Halifax are all talented performers in their own right, and do hold their own, but this is as close to a one-man show as it gets. Oldman is certainly up to the task.
Moral Convictions: Churchill is one of history’s most recognized leaders, and his lasting lionization isn’t something that’s challenged at all by the film. There’s perhaps a bit too much of a rah-rah feel that, while not exactly morally compromising in this case, at times makes the movie a bit dull. There’s no question that the Nazis were worth fighting, and retreating and playing ball with them would have vastly shaped our world for the worse. But that successful battle did take millions of lives, all over the world. The nod that Darkest Hour gives to that cost is through a brief scene where Churchill sees a photo on his typist’s desk, which turns out to be her brother who is in France fighting. It’s a moment that shows Churchill also exhibits empathy and humanity in addition to his confidence and swagger. Otherwise, it seems like Churchill’s conviction comes from a place of patriotism and standing up to the concept of dictatorship. Those convictions are strong, and he’s able to use his charisma with words to convince his doubters to go along with him. It’s a good thing that Churchill held to those principles and decided to fight back. It’s better that those principles were agreeable. A charismatic, brash leader insisting he’s right can have disastrous impacts if he’s not.
Overall: Gary Oldman gives a powerful, memorable portrayal of Winston Churchill in a solidly crafted but relatively safe and predictable historical drama.
Featured Image: Focus Features