starring Gary Oldman, Kristin Scott Thomas, Lily James, Ben Mendelsohn
screenplay by Anthony McCarten
directed by Joe Wright
by Walter Chaw Joe Wright's propulsive, compelling, awards-season prestige biopic Darkest Hour finds Gary Oldman in fine fettle, delivering a rousing performance as WWII-era Winston Churchill, from the moment of his usurpation of Neville Chamberlain (Ronald Pickup) for the Prime Minister-ship through to the beginning of the evacuation of Dunkirk. It's a film about the suddenly-controversial position of not appeasing Nazis and the importance of rhetoric as a skill in our leadership. (Churchill uses Cicero as reference material.) It's about principles and erudition. A shame that both seem suddenly in such short supply. When Churchill addresses Parliament in his famous "We will never surrender" speech, chief political rival Viscount Halifax (Stephen Dillane) mutters that Winston's just mobilized the English language. Trapped as we are now as a nation under an illiterate, sub-human moron and Nazi sympathizer who is some combination of demented and narcissistic, I confess I got emotional a time or two imagining there were once leaders in the world of whom we could be proud and behind whom we could rally. A shame that it seems so much like quaint science-fiction as we work through our forever-war scenarios and jockey for battle against Southeast Asia again. Darkest Hour, in other words, feels aspirational rather than historical, finding its greatest tensions in the disagreement within Churchill's war council over whether or not the British Empire should "hear out" the Nazis in order to avoid conflict, or whether they should make a stand and, should they be defeated, at least be defeated knowing the empire stood for something. Churchill says that great civilizations that fought and were conquered tend to rise again--but civilizations that capitulate tend to be swallowed by history. Call Darkest Hour a warning about the poison diminishing the United States, though I doubt we're listening.
While Darkest Hour is a hagiography no matter how you slice it, there is at least a hint now and again of controversy in Churchill's character. He remains the architect of the disastrous Gallipoli campaign in WWI, winning him the enduring mistrust of King George (Ben Mendelsohn, a POME playing crown royalty, heavens!) and shaping his diminished status in the government; he's a figure more popular with the opposition party than with his own, until this pivotal moment. Wright uses a huge chyron to mark the days ticking slowly over in the manner of an analog alarm clock, to show that all of the things happening in the film happen in a matter of days. He does a good job conveying the gravity of the situation and the stress on Churchill. Everyone does a good job. Everyone is exactly as excellent as you'd suspect. Darkest Hour overall is exactly as good as it can be, given that there's a movie or two like it every year around this time and that it has a strict formula to follow in telling a story everyone should know. It's the film that people who brag about liking movies will make a point of seeing so they've seen all the Best Picture nominees at the end of the year and nothing else. You can take grandma to it, although she'll complain that she needs subtitles. Show it as the middle film between The King's Speech and Dunkirk for a roughly chronological epic of this period of English history, in shorthand and for ease of popular (read: "American post-literate") consumption. Still, it's worth it for the phone call in a closet where Churchill begs for his country's future only to have FDR say that his hands are tied by a vote for neutrality from "the greatest country on Earth," which likes to now and again and always turn the other way when it comes to white supremacy and fascism, but until recently came to its senses before it was absolutely too late. Darkest Hour is a timely film, then, a call to arms from the Brits to the Yanks again that the bad guys are actively plotting the end of the world and isn't it time America did something. Isn't it?