Joe Wright's "Darkest Hour" is a shallow yet tasty portrait of Winston Churchill, relating a story of a modern legend mastering his true battlefield: the court of public opinion.
It's May 1940 and Nazi Germany is settling into Norway while storming Belgium, Holland and France. Europe's falling, and Britain knows that it will soon be under siege. Neville Chamberlain (Ronald Pickup) is ousted as prime minster by a divided government. Desperate to surrender to Germany, Chamberlain's seen by much of Britain as the feeble bureaucrat who allowed Adolf Hitler to grow into a colossus. Churchill (Gary Oldman) is Chamberlain's successor, a crafty political dynamo with a string of failures under his belt who can nevertheless unite, for now, the warring factions in the House of Commons.
Anthony McCarten peppers his script with references to Churchill's controversies, such as the new prime minister's comfort with imperialism, and the blame he shoulders for the catastrophic fatalities of the Gallipoli Campaign in the First World War. This is the mark of a modern biopic, which passingly acknowledges a character's flaws so that we may more confidently savor their strengths. But we know that "Darkest Hour" is in Churchill's corner. When facing the Nazis, it's tough to lose the moral higher ground.
This certainty is the wellspring of the film's comfort, and the reason that Churchill has been staging a huge comeback in the public imagination. Last year, there was "Churchill," with Brian Cox in the titular role, in which the prime minister debated the invasion of Normandy with Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower. There was also Thomas E. Ricks' sharp and shrewd book, "Churchill and Orwell: the Fight for Freedom," which juxtaposed two legends who're united by their brilliant command of the English language. A few weeks ago, The New York Times published a brief profile of Chartwell Booksellers, which sells only Churchill-related volumes, some of which are purchased by powerful men at exorbitant sums. The bookseller also was featured in Showtime's high-finance soap opera, "Billions."
To modern American pop culture, Churchill represents a fantasy of a man risking his livelihood to rectify chaos. We live in our own chaotic times, governed by corrupt imbeciles, and so we logically long for real-life white knights. Churchill is an irresistible mixture of corpulent frump, poet, booze hound, and warrior — embodying a notion of a national grandfather as unexpected yet unironic man's man.
Wright, a theatrical director with a penchant for gimmickry, taps the trunk of the Churchill mythos, allowing us to draw rich sips of its sap. There's nothing conventionally realistic about "Darkest Hour." As with Wright's adaptation of "Anna Karenina," we're encouraged in this film to savor the figurative set design, particularly the House of Commons, which complements the zesty aphorisms of McCarten's dialogue. In this chamber, men sit nearly on top of one another in angular vertical rows that suggest German expressionism. Through design, politics are understood as high-stakes theater. Churchill must unite Britain in opposition to Germany, via the fury of his oration.
"Darkest Hour" is structured so that two of Churchill's famous speeches serve as bookends to the plot. Early in the film, Churchill promises "blood, toil, tears and sweat" to an unimpressed Parliament. At the film's climax, after roughly a month in office, Churchill proclaims that "We shall fight on the beaches," winning over Parliament and even Chamberlain. In between these speeches, Churchill learns how to write for his new audience, as the poetic repetition of "we shall fight" attains a self-sacrificing cadence that remains stirring. Churchill learned how to sell inevitable violence, leaning on his own past calamities to forge an image of glorious perseverance.
Oldman makes a meal of Churchill's grandiosity. This is an ideal match of actor and role. Like Churchill, Oldman is a showboat — a brilliant artist who exalts in gestural bigness. It's worth seeing "Darkest Hour" to watch Oldman smoke cigars as Churchill, with flourishes that signal the pleasure of parading addictions as the ultimate symbols of endurance and authority. When Churchill describes his parents to King George VI (Ben Mendelsohn), he says that his father was "like God, busy elsewhere." The pause that Oldman places between "God" and "busy" is divine, illustrating Churchill's mastery of promotion and self-mythology. Churchill's gift for iconography becomes indistinguishable from Oldman's.
"Darkest Hour" takes shortcuts that're familiar to biopics, which are occasionally regrettable. Churchill's wife, Clementine (Kristin Scott Thomas), is reduced to a cheerleader who's typical of female characters in stories of great men, and there's little time made for the incidental details that can ground a lionized narrative in the contours of everyday existence. S