Joe Wright's Churchill-finds-his-mojo drama Darkest Hour is an epic of loin girding, a spectacle of a man and a nation psyching each other up for the terrible fight ahead. It’s a rousing wiki-deep summary of the gist of Winston Churchill's first month in power, from his assumption of the office of prime minister to his delivery of the second most famous to-arms speech in British history. Wright’s film is fleet but not especially thoughtful, wholly convincing in its production design, and in one crucial sense something rare: Here’s a war movie about rhetoric rather than battle scenes.
"He's mobilized the English language," a rival of Churchill's mutters, in awe, after one of the crotchety prime minister’s several climactic speeches. To drive the point home, Wright (Atonement, Pan and the 2012 Anna Karenina) shows us the hangdog visage of another rival, played by Stephen Dillane, who looks as if the director, who has no fear of overstating the obvious, has told him a sad trombone bleat will score the shot.
Churchill's words, of course, were triumphant long before the Allies were in battle. The idea that powers Wright's film is that declaring the will to fight is itself a fight. We meet Churchill (Gary Oldman) in May 1940, when the Nazis have stormed Europe right up to France, and outgoing prime minister Neville Chamberlain (Ronald Pickup) still is insisting that Britain’s best chance to avoid invasion is a peace deal with Hitler. Churchill, of course, sees the Führer for the monster he is and vows to fight the Reich, in France and at home.
Other than a couple of lavish shots of the front, where the camera glides over an endless stream of French refugees or soars up from the last survivors of a British squad hunkered down in the ruins of Calais to the Luftwaffe bombers raining hell from above, the film is confined to London, mostly interiors. We meet Churchill in his own dark bedroom, lit at first only by the fire of a match to his cigar. We follow him though the stately clutter of Buckingham Palace, where he must endure stiff lunches with the king (Ben Mendelsohn); then we plunge with him and the new typist he’s been haranguing (Lily James) into the cramped basement command center beneath Westminster, where he will argue with his war council and — in a scene of gutting power — send thousands of boys off to die in order to save hundreds of thousands more.
Wright frequently isolates his Churchill in the center of the frame, surrounded entirely by darkness, these striking compositions emphasizing a sense of the end pressing in on the man and his country but also a flare of hope, a beacon in the black.
Wright is adept at immersing us in place, snaking his camera through this lavish re-creation of a secret London underground. And with Oldman as his lead, he has an actor he can trust with both the biggest and smallest moments. The last lion roars, when appropriate, forever vigorous in his calls for the full defense of the realm. But he also japes and doubts, cries and almost — when he seems to have been outmaneuvered by Chamberlain’s crowd — comes close to shutting down. This is a human Churchill, a man who has to sweat some to find the words that still get quoted whenever prime ministers or presidents urge their nations into war. He drinks too much, smokes too much, doesn’t listen to others, sometimes shouts when he shouldn’t. But his voice shrinks when, on the phone in his private WC, President Roosevelt declines to help. Sometimes Oldman swans, a bit, his Churchill quite taken with his own Churchillness, but who can doubt that Churchill was, too? The man had to convince himself and his country that together they could save their empire — well, in such circumstances an outsize self-regard is crucial. (Kristin Scott Thomas, playing Churchill’s wife Clementine, sketches a robust portrait in just moments of screen time.)
Wright and screenwriter Anthony McCarten arrange the material with crisp clarity, working by calendar and news cycle. Onscreen titles tell us what day we’ve just glimpsed and what new one is dawning; inevitably, not long into each, bad tidings will arrive about the Nazis’ success.
At times, Darkest Hour plays like a companion piece to Wright’s Atonement from 2007, which peaked with a bravura long-take shot surveying the horrors of Dunkirk. Here, we see Churchill upbraid his war cabinet into action to save the 300,000 British soldiers stuck on that French beach, harried by the Germans. The choices he makes are excruciating; his call-in-the-cavalry solution to the dilemma, of course, is inspired, almost as thrilling a gambit to regard here, where we merely glimpse its execution, as it is in Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk.
The film’s at its best when we’re watching Churchill command and inveigh and clash with his rivals.
Its low points, curiously, are also his, the moments when it seems that he’s been outmaneuvered by Chamberlain and company, when Britain seems on the cusp of seeking terms with Hitler. There’s little drama here, as anyone interested enough to see the film certainly knows the outcome. To get the prime minister in the mood to give the speeches that will reveal Britain’s resolve, Wright thrusts Churchill among the people, setting him loose in the non-secret Underground. On a Tube train that takes a curiously long time between each stop, Churchill quizzes everyday Londoners about whether their island nation should fight the evil that has swallowed Europe — or whether they should politely consent to be swallowed, too. Their answers, of course, hearten the prime minister, and seem crafted to bring a tear to your eye, too, though to me the scene plays hammier than a Midwestern grocery store’s party platter. This tribute to Britons’ doughty decency stings for reasons beyond the script: What would a random sampling of everyday folks have answered if, last year, just before the Brexit vote, they were asked if they would prefer to fight for an ideal or surrender to fear?