In the past two years alone, we’ve had John Lithgow in a television series and Michael Gambon in a TV movie about Winston Churchill. Earlier this year, we had Brian Cox on the big screen. All these are highly estimable enactments, each definitive in its own way. So why another? Perhaps the simplest answer, prompted by Gary Oldman’s newest incarnation in “Darkest Hour,” is that Churchill, with his valiance and massive cigars, his dark dyspepsia and mumbly eloquence, is an actor’s dream role.
Directed by Joe Wright and written by Anthony McCarten, “Darkest Hour” follows Churchill during his first few weeks in May 1940 as the newly elected prime minister, succeeding Neville Chamberlain (Ronald Pickup), at a time when France is close to surrender and the Nazis have trapped virtually the entire British Expeditionary Force on the beaches of Dunkirk, France. (For more of the same, see “Dunkirk,” which carries its own Churchill bona fides.)
Churchill is first introduced to us in his darkly lit bedroom, swathed in blankets, as his tremulous new secretary (Lily James) tentatively enters and risks his wrath. It’s the kind of slow reveal one might expect to see in a monster movie, except Churchill, of course, turns out to be something of a sweetheart. His real wrath is directed at Hitler, which, at least in pragmatic terms, puts him at odds with his chief political adversaries, Chamberlain, Viscount Halifax (Stephen Dillane), and, for a time, King George VI (Ben Mendelsohn), who believe “peace” negotiations with Hitler are the only way to rescue the militarily outmatched England from annihilation.
Since we know how this all plays out, it is incumbent upon the filmmakers to provide us with more than historical waxworks. With the exception of Oldman’s performance, this is, alas, not the case. There is altogether too much screen time expended in the underground war room as we watch stuffy politicians hotly debating tactics. Above ground, things aren’t much better, what with all the parliamentarians jeering and cheering in the corridors of power as Churchill weightily ponders the best course of action and the screen flashes date-stamped title cards cluing us in as to what day it is.
Amid all the stiff-upper-lip theatrics, it’s amusing to see our Winnie rising to greet the day with his customary whiskey and cigars, or insisting on his daily 4 p.m. nap. But we are left in no doubt that Churchill is a man of steadfast principle, even when he himself wavers in his resolve to fight Hitler at all costs. In one especially dubious scene, Churchill elects to ride the underground with the common folk and seeks out their opinion about appeasement. Led by a little girl, they respond with a resounding “Never!” Armed with fresh resolve, he strides into Parliament.
Just in case we still don’t fully appreciate Churchill’s humanity, which comes through most fully in conflict, we have his wife of 31 years, Clementine (Kristin Scott Thomas), to set us straight. Speaking through the persistent haze of cigar smoke that imbues this movie, she tells him, “You are strong because you are imperfect.”
This is pretty standard-issue Great Man of History psychobabble, and it’s insufficient, though somewhat satisfyingly so. The clichés go down easy. Oldman doesn’t attempt to convey Churchill’s dark nights of the soul, nor is he encouraged to step outside the homburg-and-bow-tie caricature of the prime minister that is by now de rigueur. What he does do is fully fill out the caricature. It’s not a performance of great depth – how could it be within Wright’s limited conceptual framework? – but it’s highly entertaining. The film itself may skirt stodginess, but Oldman, who has played everyone from Sid Vicious to Ludwig van Beethoven to Lee Harvey Oswald, never does. (The extraordinary makeup job is courtesy of Kazuhiro Tsuji.) And like many first-rate British actors, he knows how to ringingly deliver a speech. This is especially important in this movie because Churchill epitomized a statesman for whom words, however grandiloquent, were not just words – they were incitements to action.
An added note: I wouldn’t take too seriously the tendency among some of this film’s liberal champions to inflate its importance by drawing parallels between the unfolding events in “Darkest Hour” and the era of Donald Trump. Are we supposed to recognize here, by implication, the lack of such a great leader in our own perilous times? But “Darkest Hour” could just as easily be co-opted by those who feel it depicts a lion who battles his own party and, while making his own rules, stands up to murderous bullies. This is one of those “Patton”-like movies that can be embraced for its own ends by virtually any political faction. Which is another way of saying its usefulness as principled propaganda is moot. Grade: B- (Rated PG-13 for some thematic material.)