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Cinema and time work in mysterious ways. Here in 2017, there have been a whopping three films that centered on an event that took place more than 75 years ago: the evacuation of Dunkirk. First, there was the underseen romance Their Finest, then the unlikely summer blockbuster Dunkirk, and now Darkest Hour, a bellowing drama about Winston Churchill’s first days as Prime Minister. What is it about the evacuation of Dunkirk that is so relevant to today’s filmmakers? Perhaps it is the resolve in the face of fascism, and our aspirations to think strategically—to retreat so we can attack—in the midst of a larger, existential battle.
As such, Churchill—at least the one played so magnificently by Gary Oldman in Darkest Hour—is the hero we need. Wearing pounds of prosthetics that seamlessly transform the slim actor into the British Bulldog, Oldman turns in a complete and compelling performance, showing Churchill both at his most pugnacious and his more shrewdly tame. It starts with him in bed, drinking and smoking before he has taken his first steps of the morning, and then shouting as his new secretary (Lily James) for typing single-spaced instead of his preferred double-spaced. Darkest Hour teases us with a monster before revealing the hero underneath.
After Parliament calls for the ousting of his predecessor, Neville Chamberlain (Ronald Pickup), in a raucous opening scene in the House of Commons, Churchill is announced as his successor and immediately draws the scrutiny of both the government and the monarch (Ben Mendelsohn, hitting the right notes of indecision as Bertie) for his opposition to peace talks with the Third Reich. From the film, it’s not clear what made Churchill such an attractive successor to Chamberlain in the first place, as he seems to have no friends on either side of the aisle.
It’s easy to see why. Churchill favors diplomacy neither in the micro nor the macro. He is surrounded by family members for whom he has little time and colleagues who could be allies, but his single-mindedness isolates him. As such, the supporting characters—a murderer’s row of acting talent—barely register. Kristin Scott Thomas makes marginalization seem elegant as Churchill’s dutiful wife Clementine, and Stephen Dillane has little more to do but stare semi-petrified as the film’s protagonist Lord Halifax. Meanwhile, Oldman commands every inch of the frame, and director Joe Wright (Atonement, Anna Karenina) often finds him in dark spaces, with a shaft of sunlight miraculously touching only him.
This is the problem: So much sheer competence is on display here, from Oldman’s likely award-winning performance to the taut screenplay that expertly dramatizes the inner workings of the British government, that Darkest Hour is an impossible film to dismiss. But because Churchill himself was so isolated, there is nothing for the viewer to grab onto. The nature of his struggle is solitary, but change comes through relationships, and there are none on display here. Churchill is fighting a lonely battle here, which is historically accurate and thematically resonant, but is also dramatically inert. We know why he must succeed, and we know that he will. By the time the credits roll, we see him as the hero we need but are no closer to discovering his humanity.
Darkest Hour opens Friday at Landmark’s E Street Cinema and Landmark’s Bethesda Row Cinema.