Great men prove what we are capable of, but they also prove that institutions are not by themselves enough.
The word “uncompromising” is often attached to creative artists who defy convention. It is usually reserved for those who break taboos about violence or sex, particularly in motion pictures. Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver (1976) is “uncompromising,” as is Oliver Stone’s Natural Born Killers (1994), Marlon Brando’s pornographic Last Tango in Paris (1972), and Darron Aronofsky’s ugly and violent homage to environmentalism, Mother! (2017).
Darkest Hour, the new film about Winston Churchill’s leadership of Britain as the Nazis approached in 1940, is a truly uncompromising movie. However, the conventions it rejects are the ones that have become clichés in Hollywood. This marvelous film has no sex or graphic violence. Most of it takes place underground, most often in a bunker. It is driven by dialogue and the protagonist is a 65-year-old man, a “British Bulldog” who is overweight, smokes cigars, stutters and mumbles, and drinks during the day. While most war movies will leaven the depiction of carnage with something gentler—say, a scene of people waltzing or having tea to prove there is still humanity in the midst of a blitz—Darkest Hour offers few such moments.
That unrelenting concentration is what makes this such a mesmerizing, exuberant, and exhilarating film. It narrates the events surrounding the “Never Surrender” speech that the Prime Minister gave in June 1940, the year Britain was preparing for what it was sure would be an invasion by the forces of the Third Reich. Gary Oldman gives a towering, lifetime-best performance as Churchill. It is directed by Joe Wright. Wright (Pride & Prejudice, 2005) shares the aesthetic of Casablanca director Michael Curtiz, who once said that it was the director’s job to become invisible. Aside from some elegant overhead shots that circle down into the well of the British Parliament, Wright wisely keep his camera still, letting the wonderful cast provide the drama.
Characters include King George VI (Ben Mendelsohn), Neville Chamberlain (Ronald Pickup), Viscount Halifax (Stephen Dillane), and Churchill’s secretary, Elizabeth Layton (Lily James), who provides the everyman perspective of someone going to work for the irascible and voluble Prime Minister. Kristin Scott Thomas is full of graceful strength as Churchill’s wife, Clemmie.
Oldman has played a great variety of real-life and fictional characters, including Beethoven, the British playwright Joe Orton, Police Commissioner Jim Gordon in Christopher Nolan’s Batman movies, and punk rocker Sid Vicious. He has drawn from all of these roles to play this one. His Churchill simply tells King George, who at first doubts Churchill’s competence, that he’s always had “a wildness in the blood.” His humor is present throughout: He tells a critic what makes it possible to drink at breakfast is “practice,” and laughs uproariously when he learns that the “V for Victory” sign he thought he was flashing the press photographers is instead an obscene gesture. There is a flash of Oldman’s portrayal of Sid Vicious when Churchill shows his defiance and his passion. “You are strong because you are imperfect,” Clemmie tells her husband.
Much like Tony Kushner did in writing the screenplay for Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln (2012), this movie’s writer, Anthony McCarten (The Theory of Everything, 2014), keeps the entire story focused on a few days in 1940, when the Nazi threat was at its most grave and the British had soldiers stranded at Dunkirk. (The very fine Dunkirk that Nolan made last year is a great companion piece to Darkest Hour.)
As Michael Korda notes in his 2017 book Alone, in May of that year Churchill was surrounded on all sides by skeptics and political adversaries. The Germans had conquered Poland, Holland, and Belgium and were pressing through France; the British Army was stranded at Dunkirk; and then-Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain’s wobbly government had proven incapable of facing the threat. When Churchill succeeded him in the spring of 1940, Britain was totally isolated.
The underground settings in Darkest Hour, as well as the humid grays, blacks, and blues of Bruno Delbonnel’s cinematography, capture this feeling of claustrophobia. We see Churchill, stowed away in an underground bathroom, on the phone with FDR vainly attempting to enlist the help of the Americans. The camera is tight on Churchill’s face, a map of desperation. President Roosevelt can offer some planes, but law prevents him from actually delivering them—or the British from picking them up using trucks. England can, however, drag the planes over the Canadian border using horses. From this low point, slowly, and then with increasingly brazenness, Churchill rallies his nation to action. “He has weaponized the English language,” comments one former detractor in Parliament. In another great scene, Churchill rides the London tube to be among ordinary Britons, who, to a person, say they will fight to the death to defend “our little island.”
This is the kind of filmmaking that’s rarely done anymore—mature, beautifully written, and tastefully shot, understated yet full of drama that is earned and bolstered by the best acting talent. In an age when so many movies rely on excessive explosions and endless light-saber battles, it’s a thrill to experience the carefully crafted buildup that leads to Churchill’s excoriation of the wafflers who, even as the Wehrmacht was banging on the door, insisted on trying to appease Hitler. “You cannot reason with a tiger when your head is in its mouth!” Churchill cries.
The film climaxes at Churchill’s “We Shall Fight on the Beaches” address delivered at the House of Commons on June 4, 1940:
I have, myself, full confidence that if all do their duty, if nothing is neglected, and if the best arrangements are made, as they are being made, we shall prove ourselves once again able to defend our Island home, to ride out the storm of war, and to outlive the menace of tyranny, if necessary for years, if necessary alone.
At any rate, that is what we are going to try to do. That is the resolve of His Majesty’s Government-every man of them. That is the will of Parliament and the nation.
The British Empire and the French Republic, linked together in their cause and in their need, will defend to the death their native soil, aiding each other like good comrades to the utmost of their strength. Even though large tracts of Europe and many old and famous States have fallen or may fall into the grip of the Gestapo and all the odious apparatus of Nazi rule, we shall not flag or fail.
We shall go on to the end, we shall fight in France, we shall fight on the seas and oceans, we shall fight with growing confidence and growing strength in the air, we shall defend our Island, whatever the cost may be, we shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills; we shall never surrender, and even if, which I do not for a moment believe, this Island or a large part of it were subjugated and starving, then our Empire beyond the seas, armed and guarded by the British Fleet, would carry on the struggle, until, in God’s good time, the New World, with all its power and might, steps forth to the rescue and the liberation of the old.
At once a dramatic history lesson, an acting clinic put on by Oldman, and a rousing good time with important lessons about the courage to stand up to tyranny, Darkest Hour is not to be missed.