The biopic genre, from this point forward, is going to have a difficult uphill climb. Unlike, say, the romance, the horror, or the comedy, there are only so many ways you can tell a person’s life story: you can tell the entire life’s story, like most 1940s biopics; you can tell a sliver of time biopic, focusing on their greatest achievements, like Lincoln; or you can capture the spirit of the person, like I’m Not There or Jackie. Furthermore, in a time when facts are much more readily available, and we realize that a great many heroes possessed flaws difficult to include but dishonest to ignore, there’s something that can appear false or overly complicated in the traditional biopic approach. There’s really not much a director or actor can do with this setup to combat these roadblocks; they can only focus on making their performances rich and their direction riveting. It would be incorrect to say that Joe Wright’s Darkest Hour is a perfect biopic, but thanks to a truly astonishing performance by Gary Oldman and Wright’s ingenious direction, it ends up being one of the year’s biggest joys.
It is May of 1940. England is in chaos as Adolf Hitler’s forces demolish their alliance with France and Belgium. Due to a lack of confidence in their government after their attempt at appeasement with the dictator, the British Parliament removed Neville Chamberlain (Ronald Pickup) from his position as Prime Minister, in the hopes of finding someone strong enough to stand up to a monster. To the chagrin of the Conservative Party, King George VI (Ben Mendelsohn), and even himself, the only replacement the Labour Party would agree on was the loud, irascible Winston Churchill (Oldman), whose only claim to fame was a military disaster in World War I. Now, with his troops trapped at Dunkirk beach, Hitler preparing to cross the channel and destroy them, and pressures for peace negotiations pushed on him from all angles, Churchill must find a way to save his army, win over his war council, and rally his country in the face of a terrifying evil, with only the aid of his wife Clementine (Kristin Scott Thomas) and new secretary, Elizabeth Layton (Lily James).
Before we address the elephant in the room (i.e. how great Oldman is in this film), let me make it clear that this movie is really a testament to how great a director Joe Wright is. While he misstepped in Pan two years ago, let’s not forget that he’s the master of making stuffy, clichéd period pieces feel like riveting adventures, from Pride and Prejudice to Atonement. This talent turns out to be incredibly useful, as Anthony McCarten is this film’s screenwriter. McCarten last wrote The Theory of Everything, and all of those film’s maudlin, rote biopic beats show up here to bog down the film from time to time. The very first scene where we meet Clementine (and almost all of her scenes after that) feels like a What Not To Do lesson in Screenwriting 101. They basically allow her to tell the audience a bunch of unnecessary background information on Churchill that no human would ever say in normal conversation with another. Every time a scene like this pops up, it rips the audience away from what is generally a truly fascinating story. However, that’s where Wright steps in. It almost seems like he operated with McCarten on a “one for you, one for me” basis; every time we are subjected to a terrible, clichéd biopic scene that stops the film flat, we are then treated to a sequence of thrilling filmmaking that uses all the tools in the box to construct something masterful.
Take, for example, the cinematography. For years, Bruno Delbonnel has been the master of color and of light, and what he accomplishes in tangent with Wright’s eye is nothing short of astounding. The sequences set inside the Parliament as we watch two political parties wage a war of words about how to win a true war is show from above with swooping camera angles, as if filming a chess match each time. A sequence of Churchill facing a map of Europe as he studies strategic footholds slowly allows darkness to consume it, a masterful shot subtly referencing the darkness of Nazism spreading across the continent. There are several shots where the screen is enveloped in darkness with the sole exception of an isolated Churchill, in an elevator or a lavatory, after intense scenes where he battles his colleagues, both showing him as a sole light in the darkest hour and representing the painful isolationism of being this lone man on a mission. And there’s a beautifully shot scene where Churchill gives his first speech to the nation where he sits basked in the red light of the radio. It is truly stunning work from a master of the craft. Hell, to put in perspective how great a director Wright is, just look at the scene on the Underground. I won’t spoil it in context, but there is a scene that, on paper, is probably one of the dumbest, most clichéd plot devices I’ve ever seen, which would not and should not work in its insanity in a million years, and because of the way Wright frames it, downplays it, and carefully allows the masterful score of Dario Marianelli to play over it, the scene ends up working. It shouldn’t have worked, and I hate myself for becoming attached to it, but it works. Wright is the true master behind the scenes that keeps this film moving quickly, efficiently, and gloriously.
However, if this film is to work, it needs to capture Churchill’s essence just right. It needs to portray him in the right way while allowing the actor to lose himself in the performance. And luckily, no one is willing to lose themselves in a role quite like Gary Oldman. Oldman has been a talented actor for almost thirty years, but the role here may end up being one of his greatest ever. He truly loses himself in the performance, not unlike Daniel Day-Lewis as Lincoln or Natalie Portman as Jackie. The line becomes blurred as you watch so you stop thinking of him as “Gary Oldman playing Winston Churchill” and instead think of him as “Winston Churchill.” Partially this is because of how great the makeup work is, but it also is a testament to what the actor can (and always has) been able to bring out of a role. It allows us to feel introduced to the legend through all of his idiosyncrasies and insane traits. When we first meet him, he’s a slob, overeating and boozing heavily. He informs the King that 4:00 doesn’t work as a good time for a meeting because he takes naps at that time. And he refuses to allow himself to feel honored as Prime Minister because of his own vanity. “This job isn’t a gift, it’s revenge,” he tells his confidants. And as the weight of the conflict burdens Churchill more and more, we can actually see as Churchill begins to slump more and more, feeling isolated and defeated as the film goes on.
The film also, fascinatingly, shies away from completely canonizing the man by demonstrating his faults. Sure, it doesn’t quite go into the decision that came later involving his treatment of Gandhi and his mishandlings of British Imperialism, but it does condemn the vanity that almost costs his country the war. He still adamantly refuses the blame that cost people at Gallipoli their lives, and he casually allows the same sort of suicide mission by troops at Calais, who we learn gave their lives to allow the Dunkirk Evacuation to take place. And sure, the argument can (and technically should) be made that this sacrifice allowed 300,000 boys to survive, but it doesn’t allow us to make this decision lightly, as we see the remains of the garrison as they prepare for a final bombing run. Most biopics would cut away before showing the impact of the hero’s decision, and Wright feigns like he will do the exact same thing – only to immediately cut back to show us the bombs finding their target and showing the 4,000 men that Churchill – and we, as the surrogate – left to die. It weighs on our conscience, just as we can tell it weighs on Churchill’s. What’s more, we can see the vanity and egotism that made Churchill such a blowhard – while he may have understood the threat that Hitler posed as a dictator, it took him some time to fully understand how powerful he had become, as we watch him foolishly discount and discredit the strength of the Panzer tanks (there’s some implication that Churchill, born of a different era, didn’t have the ability to grasp a changing world, but this is never fully explored).
However, while the film intelligently shows the faults that our hero possesses, it also goes to great lengths to demonstrate just how shrewd and skilled Churchill was as a leader. For example, history has proven how truly monstrous Nazism was (and is). Because of that, it feels truly shocking to see how many characters and countries feel neutral and indifferent to the threat. We know that Chamberlain tried to appease the country years before, but he seems more on Churchill’s side by the time begins than most other characters. From Churchill’s own war council to a phone call to an indifferent United States (FDR really gets the short end of the stick on this one), the fact that Churchill could stand so tall against evil on the right and indifference on the left is a true wonder to behold. It makes sense that we are told, in conversation, that he changes political parties on a whim – he doesn’t fit in with the Conservatives that he’s currently aligned himself with, but he’s also not quite aligned with the Labour Party. He’s his own man, running his own agenda, and trying to do what’s right for his country by any means necessary. From there, we get to see the true nature of his mind at work as he moves the pieces around the chess board in his mind. From the beginning, we see him set up the War Council as a Team of Enemies, hoping that by surrounding himself with varied opinions, he can keep the support of everyone while listening to no one but the British people. And we come to understand the importance of words, as we witness in great detail and greater montages how much time and energy went into choosing each of these words. We come to understand, as Churchill does, that by using these words carefully, he can create a sense of hope, whether it be real or not, that can rally the British people to fight back and do what’s right. It’s not so much the sense of duty that made the people take to their boats to make the rescue at Dunkirk, it was the fact that even though it was a colossal military disaster, Churchill’s words made them feel victorious in the end. By showing us how these great speeches came together, from “Blood, toil, sweat, and tears” to “We shall fight on the beaches,” we learn why Churchill was the needed leader for the time – it wasn’t his strategic abilities, it was the fact he could inspire hope where there was none before.
As for the rest of the cast, every actor here brings their A-game. Ben Mendelsohn isn’t quite as memorable or as interesting as Colin Firth was as King George VI, but he does have the voice down, as well as something of a regal stature. And he does have a speech late in the film that reminds us of why Mendelsohn is one of our greatest character actors. Kristin Scott Thomas, as mentioned before, gets all of the terrible lines in this film, but she’s so fascinating to watch, and dedicates herself so wholeheartedly to her performance, you can’t help but like her in spite of how poorly she’s written. Ronald Pickup, Stephen Dillane, and Jeremy Child all give strong performances as the Lords and leaders that Churchill finds himself surrounded by and battling, but for my money, the best actor outside of Oldman is young Lily James. Probably the only character outside Churchill in the film who possesses anything similar to an arc, we watch as James enters into the fray of things as a young woman assigned to be the First Lord’s secretary, only to find herself thrust onto the scene as Churchill’s confidant, writer, and ultimately friend as he finds himself increasingly at odds with everyone around him – all at a time when women were barely afforded any rights in the government, as the film subtly reminds us. James plays the role kindly, humorously, and warmly, and it ends up subtly leading from behind, etching itself into our minds even as we remind ourselves it’s not particularly a large role. James has really come into her own as an actress, and I hope to see her grow in much larger roles going forward.
Darkest Hour is a film refreshing in its old-fashionedness. It plays as a cross between The King’s Speech and Lincoln, with a little bit of The Imitation Game thrown in for good measure. It’s a film that, thanks to strong direction and acting, keeps things warm, humorous, and inspiration in the face of a growing sense of evil. It might not throw out the rulebook or change the game when it comes to biopics, but it at least tries to mix things up a bit. And even when it doesn’t, that’s ok. The history may not feel alive, but it feels electric, and quite frankly, have we ever wanted anything more in film than watching good people stick it to the Nazis? Especially when that good person is Gary Oldman? I think not.