Viewers don’t meet Winston Churchill (Gary Oldman) for the first 10 minutes of his new biopic, Darkest Hour. The director Joe Wright (Pride & Prejudice, Atonement) wants to give the British leader an appropriate drumroll: The film melds impressive archival footage of troop buildup in Europe as the Second World War gets underway with scenes in Parliament of Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain stepping down and debate raging over who his successor should be. Churchill is the only man palatable to the opposition parties, but he’s a horror to the reigning Conservatives, including the stuffy Lord Halifax (Stephen Dillane), who commiserates with Chamberlain over the brute they’re about to invite into their midst.
In short, Churchill’s reputation precedes him—both in Britain in 1940 and for any viewer watching today—and Wright knows that. He’s happy to celebrate the theatricality of the man, the thundering bulldog who became emblematic of the British blitz spirit, and an international symbol of resistance to Nazi rule. When Churchill finally enters the film, it’s in the grandest manner possible, first shrouded in darkness, then briefly illuminated as he lights his cigar. But, as it turns out, he’s ensconced in bed at home, fretting over his own worthiness for a post he’s sought his entire career.
That’s the dichotomy Wright is trying to pick apart in Darkest Hour. He’s reminding viewers of the undeniable power of Churchill the politician at a pivotal time in his life, when his oratory helped bolster Britain’s resolve to stay in the war after the fall of France and before the entry of the United States. But the director also wants to get at the interiority of this famed public figure, to explore Churchill’s insecurity and fits of depression, and to present a portrait of a man who wasn’t entirely sure he was doing the right thing when he demanded “victory at all costs” from his country.
Wright’s approach works because of the narrow focus of his story. The film’s script, written by Anthony McCarten, is centered on the five weeks between Churchill taking office as prime minister in May 1940 and the evacuation of Dunkirk in June. At the time, Britain’s future as a nation seemed most under threat, and political leaders like Halifax were seriously entertaining negotiating peace with Hitler after watching him sweep through mainland Europe. Outwardly defiant yet inwardly fearful of failure, Churchill is Wright’s perfect embodiment of that tenuous moment.
Wright has found an ideal collaborator in Oldman, an actor who knows how to embrace his most dramatic side but who still excels in his quieter moments. Buried under folds of jiggling, high-tech makeup, the naturally small-framed Oldman should be almost impossible to recognize; the artists who designed his Churchill suit have done a wonderful job, somehow managing to keep the actor present in every scene. It’s a performance practically designed in a lab to win an Academy Award (and I’m sure it will), but it’s also the crucial ingredient in Wright’s mix of high-stakes action and subtler, more graceful character work.
For fans wanting a movie that closely adheres to the day-to-day history of the moment, Darkest Hour will fall short. It’s a broad-strokes biopic, to be sure, more of a Churchill ballet than a thorough reconstruction. All the key points are there—Churchill’s loving, but argumentative relationship with his wife Clementine (an unsurprisingly poised Kristin Scott Thomas), his pitched battles with the more dovish elements of his cabinet (represented by the aggressively posh Halifax), and his close reliance on his personal secretary Elizabeth Layton (Lily James, playing a character who didn’t actually show up in Churchill’s life until a year later).
Most important is Churchill’s relationship with King George VI, played here by Ben Mendelsohn with far more remove than the warm portrayal the monarch has gotten from actors like Colin Firth (in The King’s Speech) and Jared Harris (in The Crown). To George, Churchill is an impolite oaf, not to be trusted with the delicate British soul; to Churchill, the king is an alienating presence, far too insistent on halting, stifling protocol. Wright makes their evolving relationship, and their eventual closeness, the emotional crux of his film, which is fitting given that the king supposedly exists as a symbol of the British state and its people.
Even more on the nose is a moment that comes later on in Darkest Hour as Churchill hits an especially low ebb and the evacuation of troops from Dunkirk looks like it will be an epic disaster. Wright and McCarten stage an entirely fictional scene in which the prime minister rides the London Underground and holds court with the common folk, asking their opinions of the war and whether Britain should hold fast in its resistance to the Nazi invasion. It’s simplistic and patronizing stuff, but I couldn’t resist the glorious silliness of it. As a director, Wright has been known to lean into pure melodrama—it worked for him in movies like Anna Karenina, not so much in his most recent feature Pan—and in moments like the one in the Tube, he makes effective use of Churchill the grand diva. Were Darkest Hour just a symphony of World War II nostalgia, it’d probably still be a good watch. But because the film makes the effort to go deeper, it becomes something much more memorable.