Joe Wright’s stunner is no ordinary biopic of Sir Winston Churchill. It is a vigorously directed, tightly paced war thriller with nothing less at stake than saving the world from Adolf Hitler. Anchored by an exacting, measured but sweetly responsive lead performance by Gary Oldman, Darkest Hour is the best of many great cinematic portraits of Churchill. There is no other way to watch Oldman than in near disbelief that anyone could bring Churchill back to life this convincingly. It will be difficult for any other actor to top Oldman this year.
The story will be familiar to some, especially to those who know WWII well or have read any Churchill biographies. The film opens with King George asking Churchill to take over the role of Prime Minister since Neville Chamberlain is woefully ineffectual against Hitler, whose army is sweeping through Europe with alarming speed. A master of biting wit and blunt wisdom, Churchill is disliked by many in government for those very reasons. To some it seems he has all of the grace and elegance of a bulldog. He smokes, drinks, shouts – he is simply too much for many of the staid members of Parliament. It’s surprising to see how many in the British government fought Churchill, or tried to moderate him, somehow thinking that Hitler was a man who could be dealt with reasonably. Our fascination and enduring admiration for Churchill is due mostly to his being the only prominent leader to draw an inflexible line against fascism. This film is about that line and its effectiveness.
Built as a fast-paced thriller, Darkest Hour is a countdown. How bad will things get? Can Churchill save the day? In some ways, he’s his own worst enemy because his gruff manner and occasional cruelty are not exactly winning personality traits. This film is about a specific moment in time when events teetered on a precipice. The Allied path to victory was far from assured, so a large part of the strategy was to inspire a frightened and shaken nation to acquire the psychological temperament of winners. That was one Churchill’s most significant gifts, and was perhaps his most powerful tactic to combat Hitler. He needed to reach over the government and speak directly to the people. He was resourceful, improvisational and absolutely unafraid of taking on the greatest menace the modern world has ever known. The world could use another Churchill right about now.
Joe Wright’s ambition here is remarkable. He hasn’t directed anything this vibrantly alive since Pride & Prejuduce. The dynamism pulsing through Darkest Hour is surprising, since we might imagine a movie about Churchill’s speech-writing and strategizing to be slow and plodding. But in Wright’s hands it is anything but. Ably assisted by Valerio Bonelli’s propulsive editing and Bruno Delbonnel’s opulent cinematography, the film flirts with magical realism throughout. The camera may pull back in a breathtaking shift of perspective, show a battle from high above as remote bursts of fire, or take us on a slow motion tour through the streets of England, where ordinary people soldier forth on the brink of total disaster. Anyone expecting a standard Masterpiece Theater style will be dazzled by the frenetic energy that churns the narrative, not to mention the painstaking attention to the details involved at every level – costumes, score, and production design are all eminently Oscar worthy.
But there is no doubt that Darkest Hour belongs to its lead. Oldman has every mannerism and inflection nailed down completely, yet he never loses focus on why we need yet another film about Churchill. Now more than ever it’s essential to remember what real leadership looks like. To be reminded that it’s not about easy answer. To be shown that the strengths that saved us in the past may be the very strengths we need to save us once again.
It’s interesting that both Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk and Wright’s Darkest Hour swirl around a parallel chain of events. One could cut Dunkirk into the middle of Darkest Hour to frame the story of how 300,000 soldiers became stranded on those beaches. These two films arrive at a crucial time for Europe and the US, when once again border tensions are building and misguided leaders scapegoat minorities to feed resentments. Wright’s film doesn’t make overt allusions to these conflicts, but it does gives a clear example of what can sometimes happen when being on the right side is a lonely place to be. It also shows quite clearly that sometimes playing it safe is the most dangerous play of all.
Oldman is supported by a great cast, including standout Kristin Scott Thomas as his wife Clementine, and Lily James as Churchill’s typist who comes to mean much more to the film than that humble occupation. Lily is Winston’s first audience for his legendary speeches and builds a connection with him that helps humanize his character. The great Ben Mendelsohn as King George does not so much give us a stuttering King as one who already has already conquered his affliction.
Darkest Hour will be a major player in the Oscar race, if tonight’s crowd reaction is any indication. Gary Oldman received a richly-deserved standing ovation. In his remarkable career he’s gone from playing Sid Vicious to Winston Churchill. No one seems more surprised than he. At the Q&A after the screening he said when he was first asked to play the part he laughed out loud.
Some might say that classic Hollywood has made comeback, focusing once again on WWII. But Darkest Hour is so much more than that. It feels alive and fresh – the kind of cinema that doesn’t waste a second. Wright has made sure every shot is indispensable. He has made not just one of the best films of the year, but one that will inspire some of us to hold up our fingers in a “V” sign to keep our spirits high, to demonstrate our confidence that we can win this game that we’re currently clearly losing. As Churchill would say, “It is the time to dare and to endure.”