By the time a true legend has been shellacked into history, almost the only way for art to restore some sense of its drama is to return to the moment and treat it as though the outcome were not a foregone conclusion. That’s in large part how Christopher Nolan’s steely modernist summer combat epic Dunkirk managed to sustain tension; that and the unfortunate yet dependable historical illiteracy of much of the moviegoing public.
Joe Wright’s Darkest Hour takes that same hinge moment in history — when it looked as though the Wehrmacht would roll unimpeded over all that remained of Western Europe once Belgium and France had fallen — but approaches it more as a story of interpersonal conflict than actual combat. While Allied armies in France are collapsing like so many sand castles before the Nazi onslaught, the picture back in London is not one of jutted-chin defiance but confusion, dissent, traumatized panic, and delusional thinking. It’s a moment of crisis screaming out for a leader.
Most recountings of this moment would have Winston Churchill stride into the chaos like some goliath. But in Wright’s recounting, the hero of the moment galumphs on stage as an embarrassing has-been, half-anxious, half-arrogant, and filled with champagne and whiskey. With Gary Oldman well visible behind the heavy makeup and camouflage scrim of cigar smoke, it’s the kind of performance that gets called a tour de force, and for good reason. Oldman hasn’t had a role like this since he burrowed into George Smiley’s mole-like quietude for Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy; the whole enterprise depends on him. Fortunately, all these years padding the resume with B-movie villain roles must have left Oldman hungry to play somebody with a spark more humanity in them. Darkest Hour‘s Churchill is highly human in his fleshy and dithering way.
Churchill is first glimpsed in bed, firing up a stogie and ingesting a full English breakfast as he peruses the news and berates his new personal secretary Elizabeth Layton (Lily James, spunky in a generic way). He’s grumpy, mumbly, easily distracted, and moody as a teenager; not an auspicious character in which to entrust a nation’s hopes. However, as the better historical dramas do, Anthony McCarten’s script reminds us that crises never unfold in a clear line but as a series of accidents and near-misses.
When Wright starts things off, Parliament is in an uproar. Confidence in the hapless prime minister Neville Chamberlain (Ronald Pickup) has been lost after his years-long program of negotiating with Hitler has left them facing imminent invasion. Casting about for possible replacements, the parties fall upon Churchill, a divisive, self-consciously literary, and overly opinionated gadfly best remembered at that point for the disastrously miscalculated and bloody Gallipoli campaign in World War I. “It’s not a gift,” Churchill remarks with the cheery cynicism of a veteran Westminster operator surveying the landscape of his opponents, “it’s revenge.”
Meanwhile, the clock ticks. Eschewing the normative palliative nature of most current British period movies, Wright jitters up the screen with big blast interstitials showing the dates changing; it not only delivers some sense of the urgency of the moment, but also serves as a handy reminder of just how brief a window of time was occupied by these momentous decisions. In short, what we are seeing is all the of the behind-the-scene machinations that happened off-screen in Dunkirk as the soldiers fought for survival in the chaos only briefly glimpsed here.
The Darkest Hour is finely turned historical drama when it emphasizes the chaos and tumult of politics in times of crisis. Although one imagines Churchill’s mind is racing with strategic alternatives for rescuing the British army from their ever-smaller redoubt at Dunkirk, his waking moments are preoccupied with more mundane matters. He must outmaneuver the forces of conciliation, represented here by Chamberlain and Lord Halifax (Stephen Dillane), while simultaneously stirring the spirits of the common people with high-flying oratory and a judicious withholding of the more terrifying facts. Although the movie never wavers in its belief that Churchill’s bulldog tenaciousness makes him the man of the hour, it doesn’t cheapen the narrative by presenting Chamberlain and Halifax as quivering cowards. It reminds us that these men were, like many other of their time, willing to do anything to keep their country out of another generation-annihilating war; the fact that Churchill’s strategic acumen wasn’t airtight didn’t help matters.
Bolstering Churchill as he frets and murmurs behind closed doors are his long-suffering wife Clementine (Kristin Scott Thomas, sharp as glass) and the reluctant ally King George VI (Ben Mendelsohn). Both performances are far less showy than Oldman, but no less perfectly attuned. Oldman’s vibrant mix of bluster and owl-eyed perceptiveness commands the screen with ease, but Wright jabs his camera in close to that whiskey-bleared face whenever possible just to make sure we catch it.
There are moments in Darkest Hour when Wright doesn’t seem confident enough in his material. Flash-bang dramatic at first, the movie unaccountably sags in the last third. The screenplay even invents an implausibly hokey scene where Churchill rides the Underground and asks the awestruck riders for their opinion on what he should do. Oldman’s performance is hammy, of course, but one can’t play the role without at least a dash of that; it would be like playing Orson Welles without ever overacting. A little more trust in the innate dramatic potential of a story where the fate of the free world hung in the balance would have pushed this movie from the ranks of the nearly-great to the truly-great.
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