Darkest Hour

Never surrender

Wednesday, December 20, 2017

Winston Churchill lived a life that was long and “not…entirely uneventful,” as he once put it, and so it’s only fitting that he should be the subject of movies. Hence, across the veil of years, we have seen tall Churchills, obese Churchills, sloppy Churchills, gross Churchills, and scowling bulldog Churchills, and yet not one movie or TV Churchill has come close to giving us the man in full, both in look and spirit, until Gary Oldman in Darkest Hour.

For viewers interested in history, the fascination of this performance—the sense of actually seeing events we have only imagined—has no comparison in impact besides that of Daniel Day-Lewis in Lincoln. There he is—not tall, not especially fat. There he is, not just the voice, but the gestures, which combined an older man’s stiffness with a boy’s enthusiasm and energy.

Oldman’s main accomplishment, however, is in the way he captures the many nuances of Churchill’s demeanor and personality. There was something rather cute about Churchill, something lovable about him, which is not to say that Oldman goes around trying to be cute and lovable. Rather, he is irascible and impossible and sentimental and romantic and frustrated. But in all ways, this Churchill is human and authentic, and fighting alone to save his country and the world from Nazi barbarism.

Directed by Joe Wright, who visited this era to memorable effect in Atonement, Darkest Hour deals with the brief span between Churchill’s appointment as prime minister and the fall of France in World War II. It was the period in which Britain had to decide whether to fight on alone or to pursue some kind of negotiated peace on Adolf Hitler’s terms. In Churchill, Britain had a fighting prime minister, but his government was split on the subject, and there loomed a real possibility that Churchill might swiftly be replaced.

This is a story that is rarely told, and when told, rarely emphasized. Most Americans are familiar with the period that followed, Britain’s “finest hour,” in which the nation faced Hitler alone for a full year, resisting submarine attack and aerial bombardment. Darkest Hour tells the story that preceded it, in which an outgunned, peace-loving nation looked into the abyss and found the will to risk everything.

Churchill was the key to that channeling of the national will. But what’s especially effective about the film, and about Anthony McCarten’s screenplay, is that we get to see that this was no obvious decision. King George VI (Ben Mendelsohn) looks upon Churchill as a dangerous old romantic, and what’s more, we understand, through Oldman’s performance, why anyone might feel that way. The movie puts very good arguments for peace—essentially surrender—into the mouth of Lord Halifax. If we know anything about history, of course, we know that Halifax was dangerously, horribly wrong, but Stephen Dillane, who plays Halifax, sounds like the voice of reason compared with Churchill, who was, after all, emotional and quixotic and drank almost enough liquor every day to drown a horse.

So, as we watch, we agree with Churchill because we know how things turned out. But the movie makes us wonder: Would we agree if we were actually in that room? As was the case with Lincoln, all the idiosyncrasies that make Churchill human and beloved in retrospect made him a bit suspect in his own time.

Though Darkest Hour is about grand strategy and policy, much of it is about the personal. Lily James plays one of Churchill’s secretaries and effortlessly embodies the freshness of a new generation and Churchill’s responsibility to the future. We see Churchill in dark moments of doubt, coping with a degree of stress we can hardly imagine. He takes strength in the common people he meets and especially in the advice of his wife, Clementine, rightly played by Kristin Scott Thomas as indulgent yet sensible—a stern corrector, when necessary.

Darkest Hour is a persuasive window into history, and so arresting in its portrait of one of the 20th century’s most important leaders that every minute of it is absorbing. It runs for two hours, and its only flaw is that it doesn’t go on for six or seven more. I could have easily watched Oldman as Churchill go through the Battle of Britain and past it, all the way up to his speech before a joint session of Congress, a few weeks after the attack on Pearl Harbor.

Some movies are just so good that they make you feel grateful to the people that made them. Darkest Hour is one of those movies.

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