Deep Focus: Darkest Hour
In broad, fervid strokes, Joe Wright’s Darkest Hour renders the soul-stirring sights and sounds of Winston Churchill seizing political power and rallying Great Britain to the anti-Nazi cause in the 25 packed days between May 9 and June 4, 1940. Franklin Roosevelt said that Churchill “has a hundred ideas a day. Four are good, the other ninety-six downright dangerous.” Wright has one idea—to treat political theater as a theater of war. It suits the material and he expresses it a hundred different ways. The House of Commons becomes its own field of combat in the opening scene, as the Liberals cry out for change from the appeasement policies of Conservative leader Neville Chamberlain, while the Nazis settle into Norway and sweep into Belgium, Holland, and France.
When Churchill (Gary Oldman) emerges as the only Tory who can succeed Chamberlain as prime minister and form a coalition government, he finds himself in a political no-man’s land. Collecting a team of rivals, he enlists Chamberlain (Ronald Pickup) and his right-hand man, Viscount Halifax (Stephen Dillane), for his war cabinet, along with his own stalwart ally, Anthony Eden (Samuel West). In his first speech to Parliament, Churchill delivers a magnificent battle anthem, declaring he has “nothing to offer except blood, toil, tears, and sweat.” His one policy: “to wage war against a monstrous tyranny.” His sole aim: “victory at all costs.” The Liberals cheer him on, but the Tory appeasers at his back, Chamberlain and Halifax included, withhold their applause. If their eyes were lethal weapons, they would frag him.
This movie identifies everyone’s positions as neatly as markers on a map. When Halifax, a peer and thus prohibited from entering the chamber, gazes down from the spectators’ seats, he assumes the attitude of a spy. Halifax looks for Chamberlain’s white flag. If the former prime minister puts his handkerchief in his pocket, it means he disapproves; if he waves his hankie or mops his brow with it, Winston has passed muster. (How apt it is that this appeaser’s signal resembles the universal sign for surrender.) The movie charts Churchill’s progress from an isolated crusader against Hitler, struggling to convince his peers that “you cannot reason with a tiger when your head is in its mouth,” to the proud conscience of his country, and, together with his unexpected supporter, King George VI (Ben Mendelsohn), the embodiment of rugged British unity and independence.
Wright’s approach to the material is both conceptual and visceral. Working from a script by Anthony McCarten (The Theory of Everything), he films this politics-as-war movie in a slam-bang yet also rhythmic and expansive style that reflects Churchill’s own temperament. As the camera follows Oldman’s portly bulldog Churchill chugging through his claustrophobic War Rooms, Wright’s ace cinematographer, Bruno Delbonnel, matches the fluidity and impact of his trench-warfare shots in Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s A Very Long Engagement. He and Wright pull off some striking coups de cinema, including a single Steadicam take that connects the British garrison in Calais to the German bombers about to blast it to smithereens.
From the start of his big-screen career, with Pride & Prejudice (2005), Wright has infused his storytelling with highly theatrical ideas. In his Austen adaptation, he strove to cast his parts as young as they were in the original text (echoing Franco Zeffirelli’s strategy in Romeo and Juliet) while also pulling together a rougher, hardier social tapestry than could be found in other Austen adaptations. (As he told me once in an interview, “I felt if I made Lizzie’s life earthbound, if I kept her feet firmly in the mud, then her reaching for the stars—her romantic aspirations—would be even more heroic.”) In his version of Anna Karenina (2012), he navigated another stylistic extreme—mounting Tolstoy’s tragic high-society romance like an operatic spectacle, on a soundstage made to look like a 19th-century theater stage, underlining the artifice of the rules that doom his heroine. If Wright’s notions often pay off, they also can hem him in or prod him toward exaggeration.
In Darkest Hour, Wright’s charged, blustery framework pulls the audience into a distant political landscape. But his approach here is also limiting and nearly wearying. (Any second past its 124-minute running time would be a second too long.) Everything gets externalized and put straight up on the surface. That includes Churchill’s relationships with his savvy, steadfast wife Clementine (Kristin Scott Thomas), who rightly views his ministry partly as a tribute to her and the rest of the family, and his badgered but beloved secretary (Lily James, playing a composite character), who it turns out has a private reason for worrying about Calais and Dunkirk. Wright’s propulsive force can sometimes work at odds with the screenplay by Anthony McCarten (The Theory of Everything). In McCarten’s nonfiction companion book, also called Darkest Hour, he emphasizes the surprising revelation that Churchill, days after he proclaimed “victory at all costs,” entertained the notion of negotiating peace. In the movie, it’s easy to interpret this swerve toward Chamberlain and Halifax not as a genuine change of mind or a rational weighing of alternatives, but as an emotional and spiritual crisis: a response to disastrous news from France and the unrelenting power plays of the Tory appeasers.
McCarten shapes the script to salute Churchill’s knockout oratory. Wright, though, infuses the composition and delivery of his speeches with so much nervous energy that we cannot fully savor the rolling thunder of his cadences until his triumphant June 4 proclamation, “We shall fight them on the beaches…” The director takes his cue from the script’s climactic line—“he mobilized the English language and sent it into battle”—and weds it to his own guiding metaphor of statecraft as a combat zone. So we get a lot of Churchill barking new inspirations to his secretary like a crusty field commander or shouting out his rewrites on the charge, between swigs of scotch and puffs of his cigar. Even when he orates about “blood, toil, tears, and sweat,” Wright busily inserts a closeup of the secretary’s typewriter stamping those five fateful symbols into paper with a fusillade of hard-hitting keys.
Oldman’s Churchill slyly encompasses Wright’s emphasis on the man’s unfettered zeal and McCarten’s on his wordcraft. This actor never falls back on his prosthetics. He’s the rare performer able to embody a man of thought who’s also a man of action. As events surge into near-catastrophe, his unpredictable glance reassures us that Churchill has been taking in everything. Oldman doesn’t let his growl degenerate into a tic or an animal utterance; it’s more like the rough-edged hum of unceasing mental energy. He smartly modulates Churchill’s lapses into bombast, and he deftly employs the prime minister’s robust wit. (The finest family moment comes when he leads Clem and their grown children in a toast to “not buggering it up!”) Perhaps because Wright allows him to establish Churchill’s clear, bold vision from the beginning, Oldman dares to be fragile at the midpoint and beyond. He seems to shrink inside the phone booth when he pleads with President Roosevelt for material assistance. (Bound by the Neutrality Act, FDR would order hundreds of fighters to be flown to the northern boundary of the United States if Churchill could find a way to push them across the border into Canada.) Later, when he considers abandoning war with Hitler and resorting to diplomacy, it’s harrowing to hear this verbal force of nature deteriorate into slurs and mumbles. It’s a relief when he realizes, as FDR will advise America after Pearl Harbor, he has nothing to fear but fear itself.
Wright has cast the movie cannily. Scott-Thomas attacks the part of Clementine with welcome hints of mischief and a great no-nonsense candor, while James once again brings charm and plausibility to an underwritten ingénue role. Pickup delivers a wonderful caricature of Chamberlain as a walking ghost of outmoded ideals, while Dillane turns Halifax into a dauntingly saturnine aristocrat. (His accent alone is a virtuoso turn: sometimes he rolls his R’s like Tony the Tiger, at other times he waffles them like Baba Wawa.) The crowning touch is casting Mendelsohn as King George VI. This staggeringly good Australian actor arrives at his own interpretation of the big-hearted monarch Colin Firth portrayed in The King’s Speech. Mendelsohn creates a psychological force field with his measured, stuttering speech. We feel his diffidence when he hands Churchill the seal of office, but as the film goes on, we sense his reserve melting away. Blessedly irreverent, Mendelsohn and Oldman become a seriocomic tag team as they feel each other out. By the time the King’s anger at the prospect of invasion places him firmly on the Prime Minister’s side, they meet on a plane of vision and imagination. Mendelsohn finds unvarnished honesty in the King’s simple request that Churchill “lift us up.”
In an invented scene that’s borderline corny but spectacularly effective nonetheless, Churchill follows the King’s advice to let his people lead him. He enters the Underground and measures the mood of passengers young and old. They include a middle-aged woman with the same last name as his mother, Jerome (“I expect we are closely related,” Churchill says), and an aging bricklayer (“We shall have great need of bricklayers,” he adds). To a man and woman they declare that they’re ready for a fight, whether in Piccadilly or Trafalgar Square. (Churchill likes the sound of “The Battle of Trafalgar Square.”)
Moved beyond measure, the prime minister begins quoting Thomas Babington Macaulay’s Lays of Ancient Rome: “To every man upon this earth / Death cometh soon or late. / And how can man die better / Than facing fearful odds…” In an astonishingly emotional moment, a dapper young black man cuts in and completes the quote: “For the ashes of his fathers / And the temples of his gods.”
At its best, Darkest Hour celebrates Churchill not just for stoking the resilience and patriotism of his people, but also their vigorous defense of freedom and democracy.
Michael Sragow is a contributing editor to Film Comment and writes its Deep Focus column. He is a member of the National Society of Film Critics and the Los Angeles Film Critics Association. He also curates “The Moviegoer” at the Library of America website.