It would seem this is the cinematic year to look at the evacuation of Dunkirk during World War II. Over the summer, there was the Christopher Nolan-helmed Dunkirk, showing the stresses that British soldiers and civilians underwent in order to rescue 300,000 soldiers from the Nazis before the war could even get started. The movie ended with a scared young man reading a transcript of the famous “We shall fight them on the beaches” speech given by Prime Minister Winston Churchill.
Darkest Hour refocuses that same evacuation and the weeks leading up to it by focusing on the man who gave that speech.
Director Joe Wright’s film essentially looks at the first month in office for Winston Churchill. Churchill ascended to the seat of Prime Minister after a vote of no confidence in outgoing Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain forces a push to a coalition government during the early days of World War II as Nazi Germany was steamrolling over Western Europe and potentially headed towards an invasion of Britain itself. As it is, Chamberlain has a replacement in mind…one Viscount Halifax (Game of Thrones‘ Stephen Dillane). But Halifax declines for some reason and the seat then falls to the only member of the ruling party the opposition would find acceptable even as his own party would not: Winston Churchill.
Gary Oldman plays Churchill as a gruff, eccentric man who doesn’t care who he bulldozes over to get what he needs done. He rarely shows any sort of fear or concern in his own decisions, breaking down a little only when he talks privately with his wife Clementine (Kristin Scott Thomas) and a little bit when he makes a private phone call to a rather blasé FDR. Much of the film deals with Churchill finding the strength and determination to be the Churchill that history remembers, and he obviously does. As it is, much of what Oldman’s Churchill does is gradually win over allies as he refuses to even consider peace talks for most of the movie. His biggest opponents are not the Nazis, but Chamberlain and especially Halifax. Ending roughly one month after Churchill took the Prime Minister’s office, the movie shows how Churchill’s strengths and weaknesses combined to be the leader Britain needed at that very trying time.
Overall, it’s a very generic biopic, saved largely by a bravura performance by Oldman. Oldman captures Churchill’s abrasiveness, puckish sense of humor, and gift for words very well, so see this movie for that alone. Eight and a half out of ten bathroom dictations.