It’s not a gift. It’s revenge.
Did you know Winston Churchill was given the Prime Minister position during World War II as a means to appease the opposition party before quickly removing him (once he failed like he always did) for the Conservatives’ actual choice to replace Neville Chamberlain? It’s quite the bit of intrigue considering we all know of his rising to the occasion with back against the wall to rally his nation together for the fight to reclaim Europe against all odds that laid ahead. The great orator who predicted Hitler’s evil when no one else did wanted to fight while those surrounding him in Parliament hoped to cut a deal before what looked to be an imminent surrender. He wanted to show the Germans that tyranny would not go unchecked.
This is why Churchill is seen as a hero and leader despite his past follies and the reality that he would be voted out of power directly after the war. Those early years cemented his legacy because he refused to back down and always knew the right thing to say to the British people to tap into their patriotism and see this fight through to its long and bloody end. But while that all sounds great, what would watching him in action truly look like? How much excitement could be conjured from speech after speech without the actual threat he so passionately mobilized against? Let’s be honest, the answer is clearly little since constant pontification without the drama spoken about proves nothing but words for the history books.
And yet I still had high hopes for Darkest Hour because of the man at its helm: Joe Wright. He’s made an indelible mark on everything he’s touched whether the masterpiece that is Atonement or the intriguing commercial flop Pan. I wondered what flourish he would inject to continue a tradition from typewriter score to aural colors to an impossibly perpetually moving stage. I wanted to see how Anthony McCarten‘s script would inject electricity into a period of time more or less marked by speeches to enliven, speeches to oppose, and speeches to learn. Save one single moment of brilliance, however—a pan over cratered land bombed once more that transforms into the neck and eye of a soldier cut down—Wright delivers a regular old stuffy biopic.
It begins and ends on the Parliament floor with politicians screaming and waving papers around so as not to be so pedestrian as to clap one’s hands. We respectively witness the verbally abusive dismissal of Chamberlain (Ronald Pickup) for whom confidence was lost and what could be the last straw of a chaotic few days in the Prime Minister’s chair for Churchill (Gary Oldman). Both scenes are a whole lot of pomp and circumstance with many refusing to make a peep until their party’s leader signals them to do so. These passages are thus less about the words spoken and more about this farce of a Congress faced with annihilation. To watch it was to think about today’s American Senate divided by party rather than individual moral fiber.
There’s a reason why Wright and McCarten focus upon this pettiness and downright cowardice bathing motivations in fear-induced hastiness. We must see how little of what’s being discussed has England’s citizens in mind rather than the men doing the discussing. They are setting up Churchill as the flawed yet visionary leader willing to cut his own path for support across the aisle. They want us to see him as a man of the people with the same pride that makes capitulating to a monster unfathomable. We’re to acknowledge how this titan was trapped on an island all his own with adversaries by his side (Chamberlain and Stephen Dillane‘s Viscount Halifax) and a king (Ben Mendelsohn‘s George VI) who didn’t want to give him the job from the start.
But is that enough? Can we feel the drama of defeat when it concerns a man we know led the Allied troops to victory? The answer should be yes and yet I couldn’t help finding myself waiting for a left turn that never arrived. I kept waiting to watch Churchill talk his political enemies into joining his side while his unwavering confidence led to victories no one could ignore. I waited and waited not yet realizing that Darkest Hour both starts too late and ends too early. The fact that everyone hates Winston is forced upon us without context because the film begins the day before he’s anointed Prime Minister. And some of the necessary dominoes falling to his favor do so by what appears sheer dumb luck.
Then there’s the supporting cast of good actors with roles just short of being complete. We see a lot of Churchill’s new typist Elizabeth Lawson (Lily James) because she’s a “normal citizen” with a loved one at the front line. But while the score wants us to feel a sense of kinship between them when tragedy strikes, that promise isn’t quite fulfilled. The same goes with his wife Clementine (Kristin Scott Thomas). She’s there to give a speech about all the family has sacrificed for his dream of leading the country to come true, but it rings hollow much like every other instance she’s onscreen. Her character becomes a pawn to calm Churchill’s tumultuous mind. It’s as though her moments of importance are on the cutting room floor.
It feels this way with King George too, a man we can never quite put our finger on because he comes and goes like a piece on the board that’s only useful when he can propel the plot forward. Mendelsohn is superb in the role (never going full stutter like James Purefoy in Churchill so that his struggle to keep it down by slowing his words can show his resolve), but he’s never provided the time to be a three-dimensional character able to make the sweeping and unprovoked allegiance change he does. But the score again has us believing that we should see the profundity of the act as though Wright made a three-hour movie explaining everything before the studio cut together a Cliff’s Notes instead.
The only thing left intact is Churchill’s oratory prowess. We watch him compose his speeches above the clacking of a typewriter, make hand-written changes right up until the last possible second, and bombastically deliver a show of empathy and strength with his words. This is a starring role if there ever was one—Oldman’s Winston proving the sun for which everyone else orbits. He never talks anyone into doing anything because it’s he who needs others to tell him his instincts are correct. The gruffness and the tears stem from his uncertainty, from second-guessing himself because he knows what it feels like to have innocent blood on his hands. Oldman imbues the internal struggle of leading wherein selling the hard choices to oneself is most difficult.
And he does it all while underneath layers of prosthetics. (If the film wins only one Oscar, let it be for make-up.) Oldman disappears so Churchill can rise to the surface for each quiet defeat (a phone call to Franklin Roosevelt is a highlight) and invigorating high (his forceful optimism despite knowing the futility of Britain’s plight against a red bulb’s glow during his first address to the nation is memorable). It’s just a shame the real fight is always off-screen or represented by artful overhead shots because we can only watch him engage in conversations manipulated for the greatest impact whether or not it deserves it (the impromptu subway ride doesn’t) so often. I needed more than paint-by-numbers scripting to fill in the blanks between those legendary speeches.
 (ctr) Gary Oldman stars as Winston Churchill in director Joe Wright’s DARKEST HOUR, a Focus Features release. Credit: Jack English / Focus Features
 Kristin Scott Thomas and Gary Oldman star as Clementine and Winston Churchill in director Joe Wright’s DARKEST HOUR, a Focus Features release. Credit: Jack English / Focus Features
 Gary Oldman stars as Winston Churchill and Ben Mendelsohn as King George VI in director Joe Wright’s DARKEST HOUR, a Focus Features release. Credit: Jack English / Focus Features