There is a surprise attack somewhere early in Darkest Hour in which a good movie invades and conquers everything that had come before it. It is all the more curious because it’s a subtle surprise; the war had been fought on a battleground that the invaders had created for themselves, almost by accident.
The film opens with Gary Oldman putting on a curious Winston Churchill impression. Effortful, almost a caricature, he wades through all the expected scenes: eccentric statesman in states of undress, initial encounters with the shy amanuensis, verbal fencing with the exhausted wife. It all plays as a slightly less compelling version of a side plot of The Crown.
But the invasion occurs at some point. It begins camouflaged by the cinematography and settings. I’m a sucker for realistic detail in historical films and Darkest Hour has it in spades: natural lighting; a sweat and smoke-filled Parliament chamber, a rusty elevator grate that sticks slightly; the claustrophobic tone of a long distance telephone call; cramped chiaroscuro hallways as minor staff tear through subterranean war rooms. The details, a hint of blood, a living presence, is tangible but understated.
It did not feel like an inevitable transformation, nor did it feel complete. Sharp angles of some other non-Oldman, non-Churchill human could not be sanded down completely.
It is on this background that Oldman undergoes a complex transformation. After a while I no longer saw Gary Oldman the actor made up as Winston Churchill. He had transformed. But he had not transformed into Winston Churchill… at least no Winston Churchill that I know. Oldman had transformed into someone not himself and also someone not Churchill: he became some human that was called Churchill by everyone around him, and wore an abstract “Churchillness” as the movie progressed. It did not feel like an inevitable transformation, nor did it feel complete. Sharp angles of some other non-Oldman, non-Churchill human could not be sanded down completely.
Paradoxically, because Oldman was not a complete historical Churchill, the gild of history was not as blinding as it might have been, and this allowed the human crisis to remain in our eye alongside the historical crisis. How can a leader counsel possible futile resistance? Darkest Hour could be have been played, and perhaps was intended to be played, as a “profile in courage,” but Oldman’s mild disorientation from a historical Churchill keeps the human centered within the historical figure. We see someone we know, but we do not know. How can a man be confident which way the scale will fall before he is a legend?
The victory of the film is that even though you know the outcome, you’re never left comfortable as the human crises play out. I think this distinguishes it from other films about the same moment in history. Darkest hour is treated as a living moment rather than a historical moment and the sense of dread is maintained all the way into the credits. This is how the film eventually wins. Although it lapses every now and then with a few mandatory cliches and plot creaks, as a whole it succeeds in capturing the dramatic moment, recreating the night fall for future generations that will become increasing emotionally distant from that near eclipse. You forget the final outcome when watching Churchill in Darkest Hour and it illuminates the courage of British resistance even more brightly.
In war, one death is a tragedy but a thousand is a statistic. That’s because we just can’t wrap our heads around the millions of events that comprise a war. So how can any author or director ever hope to capture the immensity of war in one narrative? Christopher Nolan experimented only somewhat successfully with how to accomplish that feat in Dunkirk earlier this year. Even Shakespeare had to beg his audience in Henry V to “piece out our imperfections with your thoughts. Into a thousand parts divide one man.” Darkest Hour takes that quote a little too literally.
Its Churchill is divided into a thousand parts, many of them contradictory. There’s a scene early in the film where Churchill looks up to a broad antler turned into a hat rack and wonders which Churchill he should become today. He picks a tophat and becomes that Churchill.
Oldman’s acting challenge is to weave the many Churchills into one coherent man.
For my money Brendan Gleeson’s Churchill in Into the Storm is the best representation of the man on celluloid, but Oldman comes close even as he is hampered by a script that is attempting on its “unworthy scaffold to bring forth, so great an object.”
Oldman’s acting challenge is to weave the many Churchills into one coherent man. He doesn’t fully succeed, however, he does yeoman’s work to keep the character from exploding outward into cartoonish multitudes. Anthony McCarten’s script sits between two chairs and falls. It would have been better served to focus in tighter or experiment even more broadly (as Nolan did in Dunkirk). But het if even Shakespeare had to beg his audience “Gently to hear, kindly to judge” his attempt to bite off an enormous piece of history, then it’s hardly generous to fault Darkest Hour too harshly for not being able to digest the huge piece of narrative that it chews upon.
Joe Wright is trying to capture the immensity of the opening stages of the biggest war in human history, which is essentially impossible. But certain scenes did succeed brilliantly in integrating the monumental into the personal. I particularly loved the scene of a small child using his circled fingers to view Churchill’s landing aircraft, as well as the scene where we begin with the British commander pacing through his besieged Calais garrison, then we’re quickly lifted up to the point of view of the German bombers, and fall back down again with the bombs destined to explode to smithereens the garrison we just walked through.
However, in the final analysis, Darkest Hour fails to integrate its biopic of Churchill with its many broad brush strokes of history, and it also cannot integrate its thousand Churchills into one believable man. Instead Oldman serves as a sort of a rotating hat rack for many different perspectives on one Churchill.