It’s an interesting move in 2017 to make a movie in which a narcissistic, anti-establishment politician is the hero. Even more so when that politician peddles propaganda, eschews peace and diplomacy, and touts himself as a representative of the common subway riders – despite having been born into the wealthy upper class of society. Given that the last year has been like, one can’t help but think of Donald Trump while watching Darkest Hour, the new film centered on the first three weeks of Winston Churchill’s incomparable career as Prime Minister of the United Kingdom. But in hinting at some of the superficial similarities of the two, the core differences are thrown into sharp relief.
A subtle contrast between leadership in Britain in 1940 and in the United States nearly 80 years later adds dimension to what could have been a typical Hollywood snapshot of an exceptionally fraught historical moment. As the film opens, Britons have decided to change horses midstream, shouting in Parliament that outgoing Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain is not only wildly incompetent, but also “personally responsible” for the growing Nazi dominance in Europe. Much to the dismay of basically everyone – Chamberlain, King George VI, even maybe a little bit Churchill himself – Churchill is determined to be the only replacement acceptable to the people. Churchill is arrogant enough to accept the job, but he’s facing an uphill battle. Western European countries are falling one after another to Hitler, Churchill’s colleagues are plotting against him, and he’s got to figure out how to get basically the entire British military off the shores of Dunkirk.
Darkest Hour covers less than a full month of history in May 1940, and there is no question the stakes are as high as the odds of failure. The story itself is a nail-biter, but the directorial decisions by Joe Wright (Atonement, Hanna) create a palpable tension and a sense of fallibility in Churchill that makes you wonder whether he can pull this off despite the fact that this is 2017’s third film about Dunkirk. The Churchill of Darkest Hour drinks like a fish and lights cigars like it’s a nervous tick, surrounding himself in a security blanket of whiskey vapors and smoke. When King Henry VI (Ben Mendelsohn) comes to see him in Churchill’s own darkest hour and greatest moment of doubt, the Prime Minister looks very small for the first time in the film. He’s taking up only a fraction of the space on the screen that he did on the first three quarters of the story.
Strong as Wright’s work is, Gary Oldman’s performance as Churchill is undoubtedly the beating heart and indomitable ego of the film. Unlike Meryl Streep as Margaret Thatcher or Colin Firth as a different film’s George VI, Oldman is unrecognizable while playing one of modern history’s most influential figures, since he is immersed in make-up, prosthetics, and grumpy, snarky demeanor. It’s difficult to think of a case in which a relatively well-known actor was able to disappear so successfully into someone so historically significant, and it’s to Oldman’s credit even more than the costume and make-up team. Also excellent, but with significantly less screen time, is Kristin Scott Thomas as Churchill’s suffering but supportive wife Clementine. The chemistry between the two is fantastic, and despite not having enough time to fully explore their marriage, the film hints at a fascinating relationship in which Clementine openly acknowledges the secondary role she’s played in Winston’s life, but seemingly feels no bitterness over it.
It’s a commonly accepted informal principle in political science that anyone who seriously aspires to the highest elected office in a country has to be exceedingly arrogant: no one other than the most ego-driven people could possibly think they could have the skills and intellect to take on such an important job. But all ambition is not created equal, and Darkest Hour creates a stark contrast between an imperfect man with the confidence to stand – alone if needed – against the international threat of fascism, and an insolent, ignorant, Twitter bully.