Winston Churchill was a man. No more or less than any other man and yet the legend of Winston Churchill endures. A legend born from one moment in history which the film Darkest Hour focuses on, Europe was falling, America was not yet in the war and the Soviets were allies with Germany. Great Britain was facing invasion alone as the continent fell with the British army marooned at Dunkirk. It fell to Churchill to lead his country through this moment and the film depicts it as not just a moment of reckoning but a moment of identity for the nation as a whole as well as the man. Churchill came to personify a spirit that had been there all along – it only needed a voice.
Like the man himself Gary Oldman as Winston Churchill towers over every other consideration in this film. A prestige biographical drama it may be but Oldman’s performance presents Churchill as an energetic figure less jowly and more cherubic. Like Daniel Day Lewis as Lincoln before him, Oldman has studied the historical archives and come away with a slant that’s different from the usual sound and look. He’s kind of cute when discussing nerves with his wife Clementine Churchill (Kristin Scott Thomas) then suitably awesome when those same nerves are frayed sparring with Lord Halifax (Stephen Dillane). The new approach doesn’t just end with Oldman; Wright dresses things down to a sunny hot London rather than gloomy fog ridden iconography. The rooms where major decisions were made are the simple small underground bricks and plaster headquarters that they were. Churchill was a former soldier, war correspondent; he painted, got into bricklaying and flew at the advent of aviation. Above all else though and for the majority of his life he was first and foremost a career politician. What’s kind of fascinating is how much his political acumen counted, how important those speeches for rallying parliament let alone the populace were.
Director Joe Wright and cinematographer Bruno Delbonnel delight with some shots whether it is sunlight shining through a window onto Ben Mendelsohn’s King George that make him appear for a second like the real face that adorned all that currency once upon a time. Or the way that a bombed landscape seamlessly transitions into the dead eye of a corpse. The devastation of war rote large in the smallest of measure of life lost. Churchill believed the battle at Calais and the sacrifice of Brigadier Claude Nicholson’s 30th Infantry Brigade helped in making the miracle of Dunkirk. For a long time this has been revised and questioned but it is a painful reminder of choices made by good leaders and the consequences for good young men when those choices are made. Those who fell at Calais and Arras are due at least a second of remembrance from us.
Some things jar whether it is Churchill catching public transport to take the temperature of common Londoners to come to his final decision or the way that individuals discuss others with info dumps of their careers and reputations. You can feel the manipulation from the filmmakers as they rally you to take Winston’s side against these duplicitous undermining politicians. Never mind Churchill had swapped sides twice in politics, never mind that suing for peace to avoid needless slaughter was a very real consideration twenty years after a whole generation had been wiped out in the first World War. Nuance is in short supply, Churchill may be presented as a man who even then was open about his battle with the ‘black dog’ but he’s still the witty capable leader we need and this was the moment when he did what was needed more than at any other time possibly in history. No small feat and capturing that is no small feat. In the end it proves a stirring presentation of the man and a crucial moment in history.