In 2017, there were three new films about the World War II military evacuation at Dunkirk: Christopher Nolan’s experiential eponymous drama that zoomed in on the logistics of the troop transport; Their Finest, from Lone Scherfig, depicting a crew turning the event into a wartime propaganda film; and now, Joe Wright’s Darkest Hour.
Of the three, Darkest Hour is the most traditional — a handsomely produced, dialogue-driven history lesson that rests on the broad shoulders of its indelible protagonist, Winston Churchill. The film is set during a fraught few weeks in May and June of 1940 in which the British government struggles with assorted crises. Prime Minister Neville Chamberlin has stepped down, and Churchill is grudgingly appointed in his stead; Hitler is sweeping across Europe, and some in Britain want to sign a peace treaty to stave off invasion; British troops are trapped on the French coast, at Dunkirk; and Churchill himself wrestles with both his new position (“It’s not a gift, it’s revenge,” he complains) and the fearsome decision that current events demand.
Wright mostly presents a snapshot of Churchill we know — the thunderous orator of newsreels; the stalwart Englishman who held fast against Hitler; the rumpled curmudgeon, armed with wit and fat cigars. And he’s tackled with some skill by Gary Oldman, who all but disappears beneath prosthetics, padding and lumbering, yet who rises above caricature. Oldman delivers a canny but flawed man — a male diva of sorts, whose outward showmanship and bravado masks worry and doubt. (But what is a politician, after all?)
Like its main character, Darkest Hour is a sturdy, well-padded affair. There are perfect interiors you long to rummage around in, and just-so costumes. A slew of respectable actors orbits Oldman, including Kristen Scott-Thomas as Churchill’s wife; Lily James, as his secretary; and Ben Mendelsohn, as King George VI.
Darkest Hour edges close to old-fashioned cinematic hamminess — cheer as Churchill defeats the upper-crusty nay-sayers, or snicker when he terrorizes his secretary with his mannered boorishness (dictating from the tub, he bellows: “I’m coming out in a state of nature!”). Truthfully, audiences secretly love that sort of stuff, perhaps even more so when it’s wrapped up all “respectably British.” If Wright pushes this indulgence too far, it’s in a preposterous scene in which Churchill rides the subway, polling plucky Londoners.
It all builds to Churchill’s famous address in which he committed Great Britain to the war — “never surrender!” It is the crescendo of this otherwise buttoned-up political melodrama, and Oldman and Wright give it all they have. Should you have any doubt that this is a defining performance even in the context of historical reality, the scene even receives a contemporaneous review from Churchill’s opponent, the treaty-desiring Lord Halifax: “He mobilized the English language and sent it into battle.”