It’s said that war is politics by other means. The factual, powerful World War II drama “Darkest Hour” provides a vivid view of policymaking as a separate form of warfare.
The film is centered on a turning point in world history as seen from the perspective of a single embattled leader, Winston Churchill, working to build a war cabinet out of infighting adversaries and to inspire his nation. It recounts six weeks at the tumultuous beginning of Churchill’s tenure as prime minister, tracing Britain’s rudderless government in May and June 1940. France had fallen to the German army, and more than 300,000 British troops were trapped on the beaches of Dunkirk. There was no parliamentary consensus about how Britain should face the Nazi juggernaut. But there were nonstop internal battles of rhetoric and a struggle for leadership.
Director Joe Wright (“Atonement”) uses the focus on Churchill to deepen the riveting history lesson with humanity and outsized personal turmoil. Churchill was lifted to the crucial post of prime minister as a compromise candidate grudgingly accepted by the rival parties of the right and left, because he had crossed the floor between both.
The film is no textbook biography, but a close look at a brilliant orator and essential hero who also carried personal doubts and failings — and a disastrous past record as commander of the navy. Of course in this film’s narrative approach, compared with the blundering and incompetent fools he must stand up against, his shortcomings feel forgivable.
Wright frames most of his stunningly photographed film inside chambers of power crowded with men locked in debate. He injects cinematic excitement into every scene. The immaculate editing, lighting and set design deserve part of the credit, but without Gary Oldman’s showmanship as Churchill, this would be a trivial film.
Wearing superb costuming and prosthetics created with surgical precision by master craftsman Kazuhiro Tsuji, Oldman is virtually identical to the aged, obese Churchill. But it’s his consummate career-best performance that lifts his work beyond imitation to imparting the great man’s essence.
Oldman’s performance, like the film, reveres Churchill but doesn’t glorify him. We see Churchill with his iconic symbols of cigar and whiskey in hand, of course. But here it’s implied that he’s using those vices to block out moments of inner anxiety and ease pains still lingering from his catastrophic term as Lord of the Admiralty during World War I.
The screenplay by Anthony McCarten (“The Theory of Everything”) is sympathetic to the inner man, a warts-and-all portrait that opens with the weary old lion in his messy pajamas with the breakfast, cigar, drink and newspaper that his servants brought to his bedside. A matter of weeks later, as total war looms, his witty and levelheaded wife, Clementine (Kristin Scott Thomas in excellent form), tells him, “You have the full weight of the world on your shoulders.” Oldman’s testy expression speaks volumes in agreement with her, giving the film a level of personal engagement that’s quite rare in history films. The actors pair together wonderfully, McCarten giving the couple verbal sword fights that tickle more than slash.
There’s more gravity in the blustering Churchill’s encounters with King George VI (Ben Mendelsohn), who is both aloof and thoughtful. The prime minister and the monarch begin with arm’s distance grappling but build an understated alliance to support the war effort and begin the empire’s finest hour. Their encounters feel not entirely realistic but believable in theatrical terms.
One scene is likely to stir debate. Churchill, doubtful that his decision to press for a full counterstrike against Germany reflects the will of the common people, boards the underground to ask them directly.
After a few exchanges that salute the chin-up determination of the passengers, Churchill responds by reciting a poem praising patriotic devotion and bravery. The moment jumps into sentimentality overload as a black passenger pipes in and finishes the poem from memory, prompting the prime minister to weep. In point of fact, Churchill was no friend to those he called the British Empire’s “uncivilized tribes.” Making him offer a tearful salute to an imaginary rainbow alliance feels like an attempt to force 21st-century values into the mind of a man born in 1874.
But that’s an insignificant criticism in the film’s bigger scheme of things. While “Darkest Hour” uses some creative license overgenerously, there is a good deal of careful craftsmanship, restraint and accuracy at work here. It’s a beautifully crafted love letter to “never, never, never give up” courage amid turmoil, a value that remains quite resonant.