In Joe Wright’s Darkest Hour, Gary Oldman plays Winston Churchill. I make a point of mentioning this because even if you go into the movie knowing that fact, it is difficult to hold in your mind. Focus on the eyes and the mouth, particularly in still images from the film, and you can almost see Oldman inside his Churchill suit, his face cradled in cushions of prosthetic fat applied by makeup artist Kazuhiro Tsuji. But in motion, the resemblance drops further away until the Oldman we’ve known for decades all but vanishes.
That Wright cast Oldman, who was part of a wave of British actors from working-class backgrounds in the 1980s, as the ultimate in British establishment figures signals Wright’s determination to blow the dust off the World War II movie. Darkest Hour, which opens on the eve of Churchill’s ascension to prime minister in May 1940, begins with the camera plunging toward the House of Lords from a great height, as if it’s just been dropped out of a German bomber. Where Wright’s Pride and Prejudice and Atonement glided laterally through a crowded dance and the Dunkirk evacuation, Darkest Hour favors the vertical axis, switching between the facts on the ground and the view from the air. There’s no getting around the fact that Anthony McCarten’s script is the blueprint of a great-man movie, the story of how one plucky politician harrumphed his way to power and used the power of oratory and selective truth to urge a nation toward victory.
But as magnetic as Oldman’s Churchill can be, the movie manages to pry itself away long enough to take in the people around him: his antagonists, Neville Chamberlain (Ronald Pickup) and Viscount Halifax (Stephen Dillane); his wife, Clementine (Kristin Scott Thomas); his secretary, Elizabeth Layton (Lily James), whose entrée into Churchill’s service is accompanied by shouting and tears; and his king, George VI (Ben Mendelsohn), a skeptic wary of Churchill’s brusque manner and bellicose aims who is eventually won over to his side.
Oldman’s Churchill is a creature of appetite and temper, an inspiring orator who has difficulty addressing individual people as if they are not part of a crowd. “He has a knack for drawing out the very worst in those who are trying to help him the most,” his wife frets. A part like this can seem like a ripe fruit just waiting to be harvested, but it’s also a trap for an unwary actor, an opportunity to declaim and detach and to hog the limelight—to behave, in short, as if the movie itself were a mere formality standing between them and their inevitable awards. Oldman’s is a ferociously big performance, but it’s not smothered by self-seriousness or a forced sense of occasion. His Churchill hasn’t been pressed between the pages of history books yet; he’s not even sure there will be a history to remember him. He eats and drinks as if every day could be his last, and brooks no interruptions or obstacles that might keep him from his goals. He’s a fusty old man—he not only tut-tuts, he actually says “Tut-tut”—but he’s filled with a vigor for life that he hopes to pass on to his despairing country.
Like Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk, an even more ambitious attempt to strip away the veneer of history, Darkest Hour remains at a remove from the battlefield itself; there’s more visceral experience of 20th-century warfare in Wonder Woman. Even though British soldiers are already dying in great numbers, and Churchill at one point faces the danger of losing the entire British army in a matter of days, the cost of war remains an abstraction, which may be why Chamberlain and Halifax’s dream of a world where they make peace with Hitler and save Britain at the rest of Europe’s expense still has a certain appeal. (Any resemblance to the Brexit debate is purely intentional.)
But Churchill’s speeches, whether delivered in the houses of Parliament or via national broadcast, are insistent in their physicality: “If this long island story of ours is to end at last,” he argues in one tense Cabinet meeting, “let it end only when each one of us lies choking in his own blood upon the ground.” And although the movie’s Churchill is thoroughly de-sexed—when he stumbles out of the tub naked and sends his secretary scurrying, it’s only out of absentmindedness—he’s clearly framed as a man among mice, one who’s doing the will of the common people even though he has virtually no contact with them. (The movie’s biggest misstep is an invented encounter where an Underground car full of plebs gives Churchill the go-ahead to wage war.)
It’s difficult to fully separate Darkest Hour from Dunkirk, especially since the former’s fleeting glimpse of the Dunkirk evacuation includes a boat similar to one that figures heavily in the latter. (Dunkirk Cinematic Universe?) And it doesn’t help that the two movies climax with the delivery of the same Churchill speech, which, no matter how stirring Oldman’s delivery, can’t match the poignancy or inventiveness of Nolan’s crafty staging. It’s sometimes said of Nolan’s movies that if you undid their structural trickery and simply laid the scenes out in chronological order they’d lose much of their interest, and while that’s not an especially trenchant criticism, if you were to go through with it you’d end with something like Darkest Hour, an engaging but safe journey towards a predetermined destination that engages the mind but not the heart. The movie doesn’t quite extract blood, sweat, or tears, even if it does toil.