This two hour and five minute biopic, with a stunning performance by Gary Oldman as Winston Churchill, shines a reminding light on the one-time fragile destiny of WW2 and the British spirit that inspired those willing to die for freedom rather than live in tyranny.
The last national conversation about Winston Churchill was a petty controversy with President Obama returning “the Colonialist’s” bust to England, but Darkest Hour is a vivid reminder of the monumental, often lonely, role he played in keeping the Nazi war machine from world domination. He knew the price Western democracies would have to pay when then Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain trusted Hitler to honor “peace in our time.”
Darkest is not merely the struggle of nations and political foes, it is as much a story of the human soul. The vicious battles of WW2 are rarely seen, which enables a cloistered, intimate portrait of Churchill to emerge. It happens through the direction of Joe Wright, the sharply honed script by Anthony McCarten (from his book) and through Oldman’s performance exposing the human vulnerability at the heart of the lionized, political performer. The film is also well-served by Kristin Scott Thomas as Clementine, the punchy and influential Mrs. Churchill; Ben Mendelsohn, as the cautious yet supportive King George VI; and the supporting players Lily James, Stephen Dillane and Ronald Pickup.
Darkest Hour takes place in 1940, and peers into the smoky chambers of back-room British political history, as damning news arrives of Nazi advances into France and Belgium and of the 300,000 British troops trapped on the beach of Dunkirk (recounted in Christopher Nolan’s recent Dunkirk). It explores the desperation of the Britain forces pinned down by the Luftwaffe. And herein lies the drama: should Churchill and the Brits surrender and allow a swastika to fly over Western Europe or risk it all and fight, knowing that in the end they might lose it all in war? Darkest Hour captures this pivotal moment, when Churchill is forced to choose between surrendering to Nazi Germany or risking the total slaughter of British freedom. We all know the speech: “We shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets. . . we shall never surrender.”
No higher price for survival was ever asked of a nation, which had fought alone since 1939, until the U.S. entered the war in 1941. The struggle is exposed in the film when Churchill sits in his war room and pleads, on a secured “telly” line, with FDR for U.S. support. FDR offers a response that reveals his lackluster concern for the British Empire and America’s misunderstanding of the destiny of Western Europe. There was one contrived scene that I’m sure was created to heighten the drama. Did the aristocratic Churchill really travel on the underground to learn the feelings of the people? Did he really take down names so he could share their opinions with his war cabinet? It is one of the movie’s weak moments that panders to modern sensibilities.
The film, with its rhythm of language and well-timed comedic punch lines, could have been a play, because of its strong execution of dialogue and also on its blocking of talent in small spaces. We also witness intimate character-revealing moments when Churchill realizes he is inappropriately using the victory V sign by holding his knuckles outward (meaning “up your bum”), and when he and his wife verbally duel over Churchill’s excesses, made clear by the sheer volume of champagne and brandy gulped on screen. Add to the master lead performance the music by Dario Marianelli that helps drive the internal journey Winston must travel. The cinematography by Bruno Delbonnel, with moments using a single light source, so to illumine the cramped spaces of the British government hiding underground, and his use of narrowing hallways to reinforce the encroachment of Hitler and Nazi troops with no escape.
The film is small in scale, but vast in theme. We all know the irony of a flawed man like Churchill being the one with vision, possibly because—as his wife tells him—his imperfections give him wisdom. Yet, Darkest Hour recalls the heroic ideal that freedom is won through courage. Even more importantly, the film is a reminder that we cannot choose when we die, but we can choose how we die, with human dignity and freedom.