Shining light in Britain's 'Darkest Hour'
Words matter. That’s one of the key messages of “Darkest Hour,” in which Gary Oldman embodies — fiercely and memorably — Winston Churchill rallying his country when Britain’s very survival was at stake.
But the same man who uttered indelible phrases like “I have nothing to offer but blood, toil, tears and sweat” was also a human being, with fears and doubts and insecurities and flaws.
“Just be yourself,” Churchill’s wife, Clementine (a briskly effective Kristin Scott Thomas) advises him as he heads off, full of jitters, to meet the king and become the wartime prime minister.
Later, he raises a glass with Clementine, with a fervent wish: “Here’s to not buggering it up.”
“Buggering it up” was certainly a risk — for Churchill, and for Oldman or any actor attempting to embody the great man.
Oldman avoids mimicry or caricature, and it’s an even better treat that he’s able to so adeptly balance conviction with doubt, courage with fear and gravity with humor.
“Darkest Hour,” directed by Joe Wright and written by Anthony McCarten, focuses on one month in 1940 that saw Churchill rise to office and face down his political foes and a wary British monarch as he navigated the threat of looming war against Hitler. Although Wright is known for his sweeping filmmaking in another war film, “Atonement,” here he focuses not on the beaches of Dunkirk but on dimly lit interiors like the underground war rooms at Westminster Palace, the halls of Parliament and Churchill’s own bedroom.
The film is, in a sense, a companion piece — by way of timing, at least — to Christopher Nolan’s “Dunkirk,” released in the summer. While Nolan focused on the action, Wright focuses on the talk — specifically how Churchill, in the words of one frustrated opponent, “mobilized the English language and sent it into battle.”
He wasn’t the first choice to be prime minister — not of his party, and certainly not of a skeptical King George VI (Ben Mendelsohn). But Parliament had lost confidence in the ailing Neville Chamberlain, and Churchill was a compromise solution.
He enters office as France and Belgium are on the brink of falling to the Nazis, and most of the British Army is stranded at Dunkirk. The new prime minister is forced to make an agonizing decision: Try to negotiate a dubious peace, as Chamberlain desired, or fight — and risk the deaths of a generation of young British men.
As we all know — Churchill decides to fight on, and to declare: “We will never surrender.”