I have lived in the United States for more than 35 years, well over half my life. I like to think I have assimilated well to the American lifestyle. Yet, for all that, there are moments when my Englishness rises to the fore.
“Darkest Hour,” which is a terrific complement to Christopher Nolan’s “Dunkirk,” is one such moment. The film stars Gary Oldman as Winston Churchill and takes place over a three week period in 1940, when the Nazis were storming through Europe and Britain found itself facing the massed German forces without a European ally left standing and its friends across the Atlantic firmly committed to neutrality.
While I am no military historian, I love a good tale of political infighting and the machinations that take place behind the surface of history.
The film begins with the Germans on the march about to enter France and British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain (Ronald Pickup), he of the “Peace for our time” speech, facing his political end. The Conservatives are the ruling party and Viscount Halifax (played by Stephen Dillane, Stannis Baratheon of “Game of Thrones” fame) is the heir apparent. Yet he declines the position knowing that the war is not going well and it is almost certainly a losing proposition. The opposition Labour party will support the government but only if the unpopular Winston Churchill, who had been sounding the warning call about Hitler for years, is in charge.
Nowadays, it seems obvious that Churchill, one of history’s great statesman, would become PM, yet he was not popular with his party, viewed as a liberal and the architect of one on World War I’s greatest defeats at Gallipoli. He was a drinker with no social filter, and reckless to boot.
(It should be noted here that enjoying the film does not require an intimate knowledge of British parliamentary procedure or early 20th century policy, but it does add nuance).
How will Churchill fight off the challenge from his own party? Will he gain respect from the king, whose brother he supported during the abdication scandal? (Side note, if Edward VIII had not abdicated Britain would almost certainly have been German by now — look it up).
The setting and cinematography are beautiful, and the cast is uniformly excellent. Joe Wright’s direction is crisp and precise, keeping the pace up in what is essentially a story set in small, cramped rooms, but make no mistake, this movie belongs to Gary Oldman.
He has always been one of those actors that can be counted on to be brilliant, even if the project is suspect (Yes, I’m looking at you “Air Force One). From his breakthroughs in “Sid and Nancy” and “Prick Up Your Ears” through “JFK,” “Bram Stoker’s Dracula” and “The Fifth Element,” to “Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy” and Jim Gordon in the Batman trilogy, Oldman is always interesting. Here is the performance that may finally bring him an Oscar, not least because the Academy loves a physical transformation and Oldman truly inhabits Churchill’s bloated physique with his jowly, rolling speech, and avoids the tendency to caricature which has afflicted many before him.
Oldman’s Churchill is flawed but human and more importantly, full of fire and passion, determined to stand and fight for what he believes in — the strength and integrity of Britain. Beyond the physical, Oldman’s eyes sparkle as Churchill’s mind works hard to resist the appeasers in his war cabinet and gather the support he needs to fight on.
There are many set pieces that allow us to share in Churchill’s journey. One particularly touching moment with King George VI (Ben Mendelsohn) allows us to see the inner resolve of both men.
Sure, I don’t expect everyone to weep when they see the civilian armada heading to Dunkirk (yes, I did), and maybe the “We shall fight on the beaches” speech has a little more resonance for me, but in this day and age, surely we can all look at our world and ponder what makes us who we are? What is it that makes us English or American or whatever country we were born in?
It is our better selves, together, in the face of tyranny that must prevail. Churchill was voted out of office at the end of the war as the people looked to build the better society they had fought and sacrificed for, but he was not diminished for all that. In that moment, he was the right man for the job. Maybe it was his past failures that allowed him to be the inspirational figure that dominates English history.
“Darkest Hour” is as much a film for now as a period piece. As the old boy said, “Never surrender.”
“Darkest Hour” is rated PG-13