An electric chamber piece that couldn’t more perfectly complement “Dunkirk” if Christopher Nolan wrote it, “Darkest Hour” is as rousing and ferocious as Winston Churchill was himself. It’s also a hell of a lot more controlled. Unfolding with the clockwork precision of a Broadway play — director Joe Wright has always been at his best when he’s at his most theatrical — this tightly coiled retelling of Churchill’s first days in office is more than (yet another) passionate appeal to our collective goodness; it’s a deliciously unsubtle testament to the power of words and their infinite capacity to inspire.
That the film arrives at a time when words seem to have lost all their value only makes it that much more persuasive.
Hardly the first time that Wright has fetishized the sway of language and its ability to shape history (“Atonement” was so lost in letters that Dario Marianelli wove the clatter of a typewriter directly into his score), “Darkest Hour” is a symphony of pencil scratches and carriage returns. And words — so many words, nearly all of them screamed. It starts by spelling out its title across the full length of the screen. The date is May 9, 1940, and Neville Chamberlain (Ronald Pickup) has officially lost the confidence of his government. He’s a timid man, and a dying one, and you have to speak very loudly in order to be heard in Parliament. If only there were some barking old bulldog waiting in the wings.
We first meet the future Prime Minister through the eyes of Elizabeth Layton (Lily James), a timid young typist who’s being sent into the slaughterhouse when she steps into Churchill’s bedroom in order to dictate his thoughts. Churchill is still tucked under the sheets with his pajamas on, looking every one of his 66 years. And yet, his speech — always delivered at a full bellow, even with a wet cigar dangling between his lips — is enough to make Elizabeth tremble and run from the room.
Screenwriter Anthony McCarten accurately remembers Churchill as a man in love with the sound of his own voice, and that quality alone is enough to make Gary Oldman the perfect choice to play him. One of the few actors whose performances are regularly big enough to be seen from space, Oldman has met his match. Here, for the first time, the star has found a character who’s larger than life itself; no matter how much hot air Oldman breathes into this balloon, it’s never going to pop. His Churchill might be the first lead performance in film history that’s delivered entirely in shouts, but it works.
Barely recognizable underneath 100 pounds of jowls, Oldman disappears into the role, and that’s all to its benefit. If Wright’s film is an intricate timepiece, then Oldman is the machinery just under its face: “Darkest Hour” doesn’t work without him, but it’s best that he remains invisible. Besides, how exciting could it possibly be to watch another British screen legend wind up their Winnie? Hell, with John Lithgow doing such a fine job of it on “The Crown,” even the American greats have gotten it down. No, this movie isn’t remarkable for what Oldman does, but rather for what Wright does with him.
McCarten’s script is limited to the month of May, and the majority of its action is confined to parliamentary halls and underground war rooms. Cinematographer Bruno Delbonnel shoots the former like he’s Janusz Kaminski, thick blades of of blinding sunlight beaming in from every window (all the better to capture the cigar smoke). He shoots the latter like Britain’s nerve center is an immaculate diorama, the camera gliding with purpose between rooms, down hallways, and across the blank spaces between sets like an episode of “The West Wing” as directed by Wes Anderson.
The restless fluidity of Wright’s style makes literal the idea of government as a machine in constant motion, and it restores a keen sense of urgency to one of the most famous global panics of the 20th century. The camerawork is never so dynamic that it makes Churchill’s success feel preordained, nor does it approach the snow-globe artificiality of Wright’s sublime “Anna Karenina,” but it rivetingly conveys the idea that brains and bluster were really the only tools at Churchill’s disposal. He certainly didn’t have any plans. Or hopes, for that matter.
Every day that ticks off the calendar is another day closer to surrender (or “peace talks”). Every day that passes is another day closer to the German Army routing the mass of British troops stationed at Dunkirk and Calais. The free world is on the brink of taking its last stand, and Churchill is sitting on a toilet and pleading with President Roosevelt to send him some ships.
To that point, “Darkest Hour” only wavers when Churchill does, it only slows down and lets some air out of the bag when Churchill begins to succumb to his doubts (this decline bottoming out in a fanciful scene where the Prime Minister comes face-to-face with his public). James, so damn winning on her own, isn’t given enough material to pick up the slack and meaningfully serve as Churchill’s conscience. Fortunately, Kristin Scott Thomas is aces as Winnie’s long-suffering wife, while Ben Mendelsohn outdoes Colin Firth as the stuttering King George VI, whose difficulties with words allowed him to recognize the power that Churchill could wield with them.
But the MVP here, the one person who’s able to hold the movie together despite all the dodgy bits in its latter half, is composer Dario Marianelli. Wright’s go-to guy has delivered some stunning work for the director in the past, but his score for “Darkest Hour” is a rare thing of beauty. Throbbing with vigor one moment, tumbling pianos towards despair the next, and then eventually entwining those disparate modes together into the cathartic bombast that accompanies Churchill’s famous speech (“We shall fight on the beaches…”), Marianelli’s music holds the film together, and the people of Britain along with it. At least until Churchill can find his rhythm and take things from there. By the time we cut (briefly) to the evacuation at Dunkirk, we’re all feeling the spirit — each and every viewer might as well be Mark Rylance loading up his pleasure boat and gallantly sailing into harm’s way.
This is a movie about the power of words, and those words have to rouse you into action. The movie wouldn’t work if you didn’t feel like Churchill mobilized the English language and sent it into battle. But you do — you do even before that perfect final image. Despots and tyrants have always been able to harness the power of words, but if certain current leaders prove anything, it’s that they only know how to use that power to incite. Winston Churchill could wield it to inspire. He could open his mouth and make a nation believe in themselves and in the nobility of their cause. And for that reason alone, our darkest hour was ultimately followed by the dawn.
“Darkest Hour” premiered at the 2017 Telluride Film Festival. It will open in theaters on November 22.