We’re living in strange times—which may be the understatement of 2017. And I’m not just talking about the insane vitriolic state of disintegrating political discourse and rage that has gripped everyone like a clenched fist. Our sociological state has become shaken as we deal with problems that many thought we already had dealt with. The future seems increasingly uncertain. The circumstances were similar for Winston Churchill when he took power and was forced to deal with the advent of World War II, which is the focus of the new drama “Darkest Hour.”
“Similar” might be a stretch.
Churchill was dealing with one of the most harrowing armies ever created, not tiki-torch wielding guys in J. Crew shirts and Sansabelt slacks. Churchill (Gary Oldman) comes into power just as Germany is invading Belgium and marching west into France. In a very short span of time, he has to decide whether or not to concede to the Nazis and negotiate peace, or stand and fight the greatest menace of the 20th century—which puts the lives of every citizen he had sworn to protect at risk.
It’s a decision and position few have faced. In hindsight, the choice of negotiating with the Devil or enduring the hell of Luftwaffe bombers, seems obvious. But the political will was lacking, and Churchill was tasked with a choice that would have broken a lesser man.
“Darkest Hour” is a great drama from director Joe Wright (“Atonement”) and focuses on a pivotal moment in Churchill’s time as prime minister. It’s a single decision that will define how history would remember him.
The timing of the film feels strange for two reasons: Much of its tension is wrapped around the retreating British army, who are cornered and awaiting rescue. (The very subject matter of summer’s “Dunkirk,” the Christopher Nolan spectacle that told this story not known to many outside of the United Kingdom.) Immediately, much of the movie’s central boiling point felt a little tepid. Then again, we know how the war ended. Churchill was a war hero who led the British people through a great hardship. He is now heralded a legend, one who has been portrayed on film and television by many talented actors. And that is the second source of strange with “Darkest Hour.”
I’ve been watching the hit Netflix series “The Crown,” which covers a different period of history for Churchill, played excellently by John Lithgow. This version of Churchill is older, more fragile and desperate to hold onto the role of Prime Minister, which had been taken from him at the end of the war. Lithgow has so many wonderful moments on the show. His award-winning portrayal shows the strengths and weaknesses of this man. It feels unfair to compare portrayals. I think I prefer Lithgow’s take, but I found Gary Oldman’s stab at The British Bulldog to be incredibly compelling. Even with “Dunkirk” and “The Crown” floating around in the periphery, Oldman was able to carve out a passionate performance.
“Darkest Hour” does a great job of delivering on drama. The entire movie is hoisted onto Oldman’s shoulders, and he carries it to the finish line. There are some other fine actors doing work; I particularly liked Ben Mendelsohn’s portrayal of King George VI. He did a nice job portraying a healthy mix of valor and vulnerability.
If there is a downside to “Darkest Hour,” it would probably be the brevity of time covered and specificity subject matter. We get to see the range of Winston Churchill’s choices during the dark hours, magnified to a dramatic degree, but with the amazing transformation by Gary Oldman, I wanted to see more of the character’s life as portrayed by Oldman—a wider snapshot of the complex person, which is a testament to how good the performance is.
They say character is what you do when no one else is looking, and people are defined by how they react to difficult scenarios. “Darkest Hour” is an intriguing examination of one man with the fate of a nation in his hands and the emotional gauntlet he endured as he wrestled with his choices, and finding the will to convince his fellow Britons there could be no peace with a monster.