Mere days after he assumed office as Britain’s Prime Minister, Winston Churchill was confronted with the direst of circumstances. Hitler’s Nazi forces were seizing Paris, and the entirety of France was on the brink. The new PM was faced with the choice of assisting his country’s ally or withdrawing to engage in negotiations with a tyrant.
“We are looking at the collapse of Western Europe within the next few days,” Churchill’s general conveys. “Should the public be told?”
“Not yet,” Churchill replies. “First we must rouse our old friends to a heroic resistance.”
That simple line, spoken so swiftly and dryly that one could easily miss it, underscores the blistering significance of Darkest Hour, a film that takes place nearly eight decades ago, but whose relevance for 2017 could not be more precise. Right now this country – and, indeed, the world – is as divided as it’s ever been, with reason and decency under attack by government officials whose vehement regressivism and insistence on the destruction of civil norms would most accurately be described as “fascist.” Society’s choice of response is stark: capitulate or fight. And in every corner of civilization, on every issue that is raised, people are resisting. Churchill adopted that approach from a position of governmental power. He wanted to inspire the sort of defiant fervor that humanity now must generate on its own.
Gary Oldman plays cigar-chewing, whiskey-sipping Prime Minister, in a performance of the unrecognizable variety. Within the limiting confines of a fait suit and under layers of makeup, many could – and already have – relegated the performance to showy Oscar bait, a stodgy one-man show. Interestingly, that’s the appeal of Anthony McCarten’s screenplay – it’s a national crisis in close-up, history playing out on one man’s face. Darkest Hour is less an episode of Masterpiece Theatre than an insular character study that charts, over the course of mere days, Churchill’s fear at his new position’s daunting scope, swift realization that his country’s fate rested on his shoulders, and eventual resolve in his refusal to surrender. Oldman’s portrayal is a stunning embodiment of not merely the skin, but the psyche of Churchill. Perhaps the makeup is artifice, but it’s a testament to the immersive authenticity of this performance that it never feels like anything separates the viewer from the character.
The performance isn’t the only thing that’s immersive. As directed by Joe Wright, Darkest Hour is intriguingly claustrophobic, its ticking-clock structure matched by its travelogue of shadowy corridors connecting underground war rooms. The dichotomy of physical space is startling, decisions on the fate of an entire continent made in crowded 300-square-foot rooms. It’s an evocative stylistic move from Wright, who tames some of his more ostentatious flourishes but still delivers an expressive journey through the bowels of Churchill’s command center, where Britain’s fate was decided.
If this territory rings familiar, that’s because Darkest Hour covers the same swift and intense period mined by Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk, but in spite of their shared centerpiece conflicts, the two films aren’t particularly comparable. Instead, they function as convenient companion pieces, Nolan’s epic charting the human struggle on land, sea, and air; this film highlighting the feverish governmental minutiae that moved those real-life chess pieces. They are also pieces of companion spirit – if the earlier film offered a glimpse into the triumph of collective humanity under harrowing circumstances, Darkest Hour demonstrates that in those harrowing circumstances, our collective humanity is best summoned by a real leader, clear-eyed, steadfast, and unwilling to bend to an enemy nation. Perhaps if the modern world could muster the humanity exhibited a full 77 years ago, perhaps we could surmount our current darkest hour.