From the dark, somber, black and white news footage opening, where German soldiers parade, and row upon row of their threatening fire-power is displayed, a feeling of suppression under a crushing Nazi jackboot is quickly established. What sounds like dull claps of thunder in the distance are really bombs dropping all over Europe, signaling the invasion of continental European countries. Poland fell to Germany, then Belgium, then the Netherlands, then France.
But the British Isles across the channel was yet to be touched. Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain, best known for his ‘Peace for our time’ declaration made after the famous signing of the Munich Agreement, found himself out of favor with the country. Once Poland fell to the Nazis, his leadership was seen as weak. Clearly, there would be no peace, as Chamberlain had promised. And even though the United Kingdom was ill prepared to enter another deadly conflict, it was left with no choice but to declare war on Germany. Chamberlain led the country for a further eight months, but there was little confidence in his wartime abilities. As the titles tell us, Chamberlain was out as PM. A hunt for a new leader began.
It helps to know a little of that background before walking in to director Joe Wright’s British war drama, Darkest Hour. There’s a whole generation of moviegoers, maybe more, who knew nothing of Christopher Nolan’s recent Dunkirk before seeing that emotional account of British soldiers stranded and surrounded on the beaches of France. But unlike Dunkirk, where the you-are there approach took audiences into the middle of the deadly chaos absent of facts and figures, Darkest Hour is altogether different. Knowing something of the difference between Chamberlain and Churchill helps. Think of the film as a detailed companion piece to Nolan’s visceral presentation. When in Nolan’s film, a soldier asks a sailor, “What took you so long?” the answer comes in Wright’s Darkest Hour.
But Dunkirk, known as Operation Dynamo, is merely the backdrop to Wright’s drama. Darkest Hour is really about Winston Churchill, long before his knighthood. Audiences may be forgiven for initially thinking that what they’re about to see is the full story of Churchill’s wartime years. Instead, like the recent Brian Cox portrayal called simply Churchill, where the influential politician was seen during only the latter days of his wartime leadership, Darkest Hour explores his first, turbulent month. It begins with his becoming the new PM on May 10, 1940, up until his galvanizing ‘We shall fight on the beaches’ speech made weeks later to the House of Commons on June 4.
Despite his being named the Greatest Briton of All Time in a controversial 2002 BBC Television poll (Richard lll was listed alongside actor/singer Michael Crawford and John Lennon) many forget, or perhaps never knew, that in his day, Churchill was never that popular. His fellow politicians thought him an annoying crank, and once the war was over, he was voted out of office. But during those war years he was exactly what the nation needed. With his two-fingered ‘V for Victory’ sign, and that ever-present cigar, he personified the symbol of the unstoppable force of the aggressive British Bulldog. Hitler may have considered Chamberlain a push-over, but Churchill was a different breed of politician. As Chamberlain (Ronald Pickup) is forced to admit to a less than enthusiastic King George (Ben Mendelsohn) once Churchill is chosen PM, “At least he was right about Hitler.” But the king is no fan. “Even a stopped clock is right twice a day,” he responds.
Gary Oldman’s characterization of Churchill is different from that of Cox, and it’s quite remarkable. Unlike Cox, whose face was always evident – it was his hunch and that Churchill inflection that did the work – Oldman disappears under a mound of prosthetics and makeup. You can see in the eyes that it’s Oldman in there somewhere, and occasionally there’s a sound in his voice that gives things away, but the illusion that we’re witnessing the real man walking the hallways of Parliament is always evident. And it isn’t just the convincing makeup alone that does the trick. By incorporating Churchill’s rhythm of speech, the distinctive inflection that turned words upwards, plus his overall bodily stance and demeanor, this could well rank as Oldman’s personal finest hour.
For a moment, after a call from the king when Churchill says to his wife, Clementine (a pitch-perfect Kristin Scott Thomas), “I believe I’ve just received a royal rap on the knuckles,” it’s as you’d imagine Churchill would have said it. And later, when he’s trying to address his war cabinet and continually berated by Lord Halifax (Stephen Dillane), Oldman’s explosive delivery of “Stop interrupting me when I’m interrupting you,” is a Churchillian gesture so convincing, it’s as if the man himself had suddenly occupied the screen.
As written by Anthony McCarten, Darkest Hour is really theatre on film. Imagine a mostly darkened stage with nothing but a well designed system of lights and basic props to indicate a change of setting or location and you’ll see that the events and their delivery have a theatrical template in their telling. Director Wright even uses a surrounding darkness to indicate Churchill’s increasing isolation, first in an elevator as it rises from the bottom of the screen to the top with nothing around it, next in a small, private room that seems to hang, motionless in the middle of the screen, and later when a door closes on Churchill and all that can be seen of the man is his face, framed in the door’s small window looking out, surrounded by an inky blackness.
Plus, that undeniable form of theatre continues in a later scene when Churchill rides the underground for one stop to Westminster. There he gets to talk to regular Londoners regarding their feelings about the war effort. The conversation of the passengers responding to Churchill’s questions doesn’t ring true in the way the film wants you to accept it. It’s a scene that would work perfectly fine on the heightened reality of stage, but the theatrical nature of the dialog renders it false when viewed on a cinematic naturalism of the screen. You can hear the moments that will inspire his oncoming speech, made all the more obvious when he asks if London could ever fall to the occupation of Nazis. A young girl stands and declares with passion, “Never!” You may question revising history in this manner and presenting it as though it really happened, but given his theatrical background, it’s not altogether surprising that director Wright would use this approach.
Then there’s the climactic speech, the moment the film has been heading towards all along. Years before the military told him to get out of the way and do what he does best, be a figurehead and inspire the nation while the leaders of the Allied forces got on with it, Churchill was the bulldog in control. With Operation Dynamo now behind him, and the idea of Mussolini acting as a mediator for peace between Britain and Germany rejected – “You cannot reason with a tiger when your head is in its mouth!” he declares – Churchill dictated his speech to his secretary Elizabeth Layton (Lily James), then delivered it with a soaring, inspirational passion to the politicians in the House of Commons. It’s a speech that many, including yours truly, can never hear enough. “We shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills. We shall NEVER surrender.”
In truth, he may not have been the Greatest Briton of all Time as voted by viewers of BBC TV, many of whom were not around during Churchill’s period and voted on a romanticized reputation rather than knowledge, but as an orator in the Houses of Parliament, his use of words and his positive effect on civilian morale at a time when it was needed the most is unequaled. In Darkest Hour, the speech sounds as inspirational as it ever did, and here it’s Oldman that makes it so.
MPAA Rating: NR Length: 125 Minutes Overall rating: 8 (out of 10)