Darkest Hour begins as Neville Chamberlain is forced to resign as Prime Minister on the eve of World War II, and Winston Churchill is selected as his replacement after the more popular Lord Halifax—also a supporter of appeasement—passes up the opportunity. It’s a bit of political maneuvering on Halifax’s part—everyone expects Churchill to fail, and then Halifax can swoop in with a unified party behind him and a plan for peace before him. Of course, we know history, and “Halifax” is not the name everyone remembers today. But Hour is an effective, engrossing film, and even though we know what happens, it still manages to sweep us up in Churchill’s struggle to get everyone to see Hitler for who he really is—a brutal tyrant, a conqueror set on conquering.
I did not expect to enjoy as Hour much as I did, but it is, like Battle of the Sexes, a film for the times. Films take so long to make there’s no way it’s a response to everything happening now, but just as Sexes benefits from unexpected—and unfortunate—timeliness, so does Hour. Gary Oldman is virtually unrecognizable as Winston Churchill, with his bulldog face and gruff voice, delivering blustery speeches to the public and his cabinet, but plagued by age and doubt in private. Churchill is acutely aware of the expectation of his failure, the lack of support within his own party and from his king, but he also has the unconditional love and support of his wife, Clementine (Kristin Scott Thomas), and the admiration and belief of his underlings, including the war minister, Anthony Eden (Samuel West), and his typist, Miss Layton (Lily James).
Director Joe Wright (Atonement, Pride & Prejudice) has a knack for period drama, and even though the world is war-grey and mostly colorless, Hour is detailed and specific, recreating 10 Downing Street and the underground bunker-offices of the war ministry in 1940. It’s not a beautiful film in the sense of lavish and grand, but Hour is tangible in the way of good period recreation. And Wright is a fan of moving cameras, so there are a lot of fun visuals, particularly slow-motion street scenes as Churchill watches the world from the backseat of his car, and yet Wright also knows when to turn the focus onto a singular person or moment. Hour is not as overtly ambitious as, say, Dunkirk—or even Wright’s own Atonement—but it’s every bit as technically accomplished, just in a subtler, less explosion-y way.
Where Hour really shines though is in the dialogue. Screenwriter Anthony McCarten (The Theory of Everything) has a splendid subject in Churchill, one of the 20th century’s greatest orators, and McCarten matches Churchill’s actual speeches with his imagined dialogue seamlessly. And that, in turn, gives Oldman plenty to chew on, AND HE DOES. He dives into the speeches and teases out the quieter moments, creating a Technicolor portrait of a man history remembers in black and white. John Lithgow also plays Churchill in The Crown to great effect, but Oldman separates his performance, partly by getting to play a slightly less old Churchill, but mostly because his Churchill is the one who led with conviction through World War II.
And this is where Darkest Hour truly shines. Some are desperate not to repeat the horrors of World War I, others are simply weak men who would rather capitulate than face uncertain fate, and stuck between them is Winston Churchill, who for so many years warned of the danger represented by Hitler. King George VI (Ben Mendelsohn, extremely good, as always) faces a similar challenge, as he is asked to decide between remaining in Britain, or retreating to Canada. Hour stumbles slightly in not drawing a stronger line between the king’s decision to remain in England and his change of heart regarding Churchill’s war plans, but the film does capture the slow-forming comradery between the two leaders.
This story, however, is all about Churchill, and his determination to fight to the very end. Darkest Hour is a study of age and power, the achieving and decline of both. But it’s also Churchill’s message of strength during struggle, fortitude in the face of doubt, conviction over cowardice, and iron will when surrounded weakness. The climactic moment when he delivers his “We shall fight on the beaches” speech is an actual Captain America-style Nazi-punch, but it’s there in the spirit of his speech. Churchill’s words inspired a nation to resistance in 1940, and they are no less powerful today. For a movie about an old man achieving incredible power, Darkest Hour is exactly the call to resist we need right now.