I’ve been trying to think when there was a historical drama I found as electrifying as Joe Wright’s “Darkest Hour.” It may have been Steven Spielberg’s “Munich,” which topped my 10-best list a dozen years ago. They are very different films, of course, and it could be that Wright’s boasts stellar accomplishments in more departments. While Gary Oldman’s phenomenal work as Winston Churchill had been heralded in advance, it is astonishingly equaled by the film’s achievements in direction, screenwriting, score and cinematography.
It’s a strange irony that the same patch of British history—a few days in the spring of 1940—has been treated in two big, Oscar-aimed 2017 movies (and even plays a role in a third film from earlier this year, “Their Finest”). In various ways, Wright’s film and Christopher Nolan’s “Dunkirk” are instructive companion pieces, with different aims that effectively orient them toward different audiences. “Dunkirk” imagines the evacuation of British troops under the onslaught of Nazi forces in a way that puts sensation over sense; it says nothing of the event’s historical context or import. Indeed, it could have been made with all action and no words, where “Darkest Hour” is all about words, words-as-action and this seminal event’s meaning to our world. It asks you to engage intellectually, not just viscerally.
But if it’s a history lesson, it’s one that plays like a tightly wound, pulse-pounding thriller. And why not: the decisions it depicts may have determined the fate of the world. The action takes place from May 8 to June 4, 1940 (the film regularly slams the dates at us in big block letters), and is framed by two important addresses in the House of Commons, the “Norway Debate” and Churchill’s rousing, epochal “We shall fight them on the beaches” speech. In between, Churchill becomes Prime Minister, because he’s the only member of his party acceptable to the opposition, and then rallies the country to fight Hitler when other politicians want to strike a deal with him.
Understanding the importance of this story’s events is not terribly easy now because it’s difficult to look at the world of 1940 as people did then. The Germans may have subjugated several European countries, but the coming slaughter of the continent’s Jews was still unsuspected, and Hitler was widely seen as a very effective authoritarian ruler (a quality that some non-Germans beset with dithering democrats frankly admired) rather than a murderous madman. Churchill’s virtue in this moment was to see the truth more clearly than others did, and to understand both the absolute necessity and the arduous difficulty of fighting the Nazi regime to the death.
The film’s title is entirely accurate. With the Germans threatening to obliterate Britain’s army prior to the Dunkirk evacuation (which is alluded to rather than shown here), and Churchill soon to hear Franklin Roosevelt decline to help the Brits due to the anti-interventionist sentiment in Congress, the United Kingdom was at a very dark and lonely place indeed. It’s no wonder that Churchill’s main opponents in this drama, Neville Chamberlain (Ronald Pickup) and Lord Halifax (Stephen Dillane), encouraged having Mussolini negotiate a deal with Hitler that might have spared Britain from invasion and potential mass slaughter. Even King George VI (Ben Mendelsohn), before being won over to Churchill’s viewpoint, was amenable to dealing with the devil.
The Winston Churchill we see here is no cartoon hero or plaster saint. As the recent, wretched “Churchill” (which was as roundly denounced by historians and Churchill experts as “Darkest Hour” has been praised) did, Wright’s film notes the dark stain on the leader’s public career that the battle of Gallipoli in World War I represented, but doesn’t make it a psychological millstone. “Darkest Hour” likewise frequently shows us its protagonist from the viewpoints of his acerbic though supportive wife, Clemmie (the brilliant Kristin Scott Thomas), and his young, endlessly put-upon secretary, Elizabeth (Lily James). Yet the freshness of this film’s portrayal begins with the dramatic sharpness and historical intelligence of Anthony McCarten’s script, which gives us a Churchill who is drawn into dynamic action by the looming shadow of Hitler’s evil.
After charting the perilous political waters, he must navigate to gain the support of his war cabinet, the film climaxes with a sublime invention: a scene in which Churchill, on the way to Parliament, bounds out of his traffic-bound limousine, hops on the Underground and listens to a car full of average Londoners voice their support for his war aims. As corny as this may sound, it’s an entirely appropriate way of registering the kind of popular backing, even affection, that Churchill enjoyed during wartime (he was voted out of office as soon as the war ended), and it works in part due to the spunky charm and thoroughgoing excellence of Gary Oldman’s performance, which deserves every award it will inevitably win.
A kindred excellence characterizes the striking collaboration between Joe Wright and cinematographer Bruno Delbonnel, who together give the film a very nuanced and engaging balance of light and shadow, eloquent movement and meditative stasis. For my money, Delbonnel’s work surpasses even “Dunkirk” to emerge as the best cinematography of the year so far. Wright’s team also benefits from the understated lyricism of Dario Marianelli’s score.
The events leading up to the charged drama we see in “Darkest Hour” have not been totally forgotten, of course. The name of Neville Chamberlain, Churchill’s predecessor, will forever be associated with the term “appeasement,” which these days hardliners use at every opportunity to denounce attempts to negotiate with objectionable regimes and rulers. But Wright’s film indirectly makes the point that not every tinpot dictator is a Hitler nor is every posturing, hawkish politician a Churchill. Certain times and men are indeed exceptional, which is why a movie like “Darkest Hour” itself stands apart from more routine historical dramas.