With all due respect to Christopher Nolan, no filmmaker has captured the evacuation of Dunkirk better than Joe Wright, who evoked the sheer scale of England’s finest hour via a five-minute tracking shot in “Atonement.” Now, with “Darkest Hour,” Wright returns to show the other side of the operation. Set during the crucial early days of Winston Churchill’s first term as prime minister, this talky yet stunningly cinematic history lesson balances the great orator’s public triumphs with more vulnerable private moments of self-doubt, elevating the inner workings of British government into a compelling piece of populist entertainment.
Whereas Nolan’s “Dunkirk” so thrillingly illustrated the military rescue at Dunkirk, all but banishing Churchill to a newspaper article read aloud at the end of the film, “Darkest Hour” spends nearly every scene at the prime minister’s side — except for the first couple, during which Churchill is dramatically absent, represented only by the bowler hat left behind in his empty seat in the House of Commons.
Wright introduces Churchill a few minutes later, sitting in the dark of his own bedroom, illuminated only by the match he strikes to light his signature cigar. The face that appears belongs to Gary Oldman, all but unrecognizable beneath Kazuhiro Tsuji’s jowly prosthetic makeup and thinning white hair. Upon closer examination, the eyes are unmistakably Oldman’s: alert, intense and aggressively intelligent. The resulting performance is unlike anything Oldman has previously delivered, in part because this time, the character is one we presume to know so well from archival footage, photographs and radio recordings. And yet, the master actor rejects mere mimicry, constructing from the ground up a full-bodied and impressively nuanced version of the historical figure.
Beginning on May 9, 1940, and ticking away the days to Operation Dynamo in bold block letters, “Darkest Hour” begins as France and Belgium are on the brink of surrendering to Hitler. Parliament has lost confidence in Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain (Ronald Pickup), who has terminal cancer and tenders his resignation directly to King George (Ben Mendelsohn). Churchill wasn’t his party’s first choice, but he was the only conservative of whom the opposition approved, in part because he had flip-flopped between both parties over the previous decade.
That flexibility was one of his greatest assets — or so believes his wife Clementine (Kristin Scott Thomas, a strong force in a few small but impactful scenes) — and the reason he was able to build a coalition government in this time of crisis. And yet, Churchill was also a man of conviction, and the movie paints him as the lone politician willing to defy Hitler and to declare war “at any cost” if necessary, when so many wanted to seek peace — or were otherwise unwilling to repeat the bloodshed of the Great War that had cost the U.K. so dearly just two decades earlier.
Arriving at a moment when screens are virtually saturated with Churchill portrayals — ranging from John Lithgow’s turn on “The Crown” to theatrical offerings starring Brian Cox and Michael Gambon — “Darkest Hour” is by far the most cinematic, this despite Anthony McCarten’s script, so eloquently theatrical that it conceivably could have been performed on a blank stage. Wright is both a virtuoso filmmaker and a natural showman, interpreting the screenplay as no other director could have possibly imagined it. Since his very first feature, 2005’s “Pride & Prejudice,” he has been reinventing the rules of how period pieces ought to be shot, and “Darkest Hour” is no different.
Dialing things back from his relatively garish adaptations of “Anna Karenina” and “Pan,” this more elegant film’s style brilliantly marries the classical with the cutting-edge, relying on regular composer Dario Marianelli and his swirling, march-like motifs for much of its energy. Working for the first time with DP Bruno Delbonnel, Wright frames the House of Commons from angles that suggest 18th-century painting, and pushes the contrast to such an extreme that the look — with its deep shadows and near-blinding highlights — recalls black-and-white films of the era. At the same time, he innovates, breaking from the walk-and-talk political-drama template introduced by “The West Wing” (from which “House of Cards” and so many others still borrow) in favor of a more dynamic, omniscient camera, with which he navigates the halls of power.
Apart from a few high-concept overhead views of the front itself (including one especially stunning shot in which bombs erupt on a stretch of terrain that seamlessly fades into the corpse of a fallen soldier), “Darkest Hour” takes place in an entirely different sphere of action, its locations ranging from the bunker-like cabinet war rooms beneath Westminster Palace to Churchill’s own private residence — all impressively recreated without drawing undue attention to the production design. The idea here is that the audience has complete, unrestricted access to Churchill during these critical days, at one point even following him into a private room from which he calls U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt, whose hands are tied by recent neutrality agreements.
Churchill may be prime minister, but his power is blocked by the leaders of both parties, who are scheming to undermine him, lest he agree to talk peace with Italy’s Benito Mussolini. Meanwhile, Churchill has self-confidence issues of his own — and in these he is supported by the young typist (Lily James) to whom he dictates his various letters and speeches.
Unfortunately, this particular chapter in history has been so thoroughly dramatized in recent years that many of the finest moments in “Darkest Hours” echo elements from other films. For example, “Churchill” (released earlier this summer) offers the wife and secretary characters meatier roles, and a key scene in which the prime minster goes on the radio to address the nation too closely resembles “The King’s Speech” (although it should be said that Mendelson’s portrayal of George VI improves upon Colin Firth’s in some ways).
Even so, familiarity does nothing to diminish the power of Churchill’s well-known speeches — to the extent that some audience members may find themselves mouthing the words in unison, as James’ character does from the sidelines. And McCarten creates an entirely original, if borderline-corny sequence set in the London Underground, during which Churchill interfaces directly with his constituents, regardless of race or class. His actual policies were far less progressive, but for the sake of this stirring bit of political revisionism, it swells the heart to see Churchill bonding with the black man who finishes his Shakespearean quotation. In actuality, Churchill wrote his own history, and here, Wright and McCarten have re-drafted it even more emphatically in his favor. But Oldman makes him human, and his performance gives us ample room to reevaluate the iconic figure.