This review contains spoilers for the film.
As the days tick by like a vintage clock, England’s “Darkest Hour” unfolds, with one man at its center.
Gary Oldman, impeded only somewhat by massive prosthetic jowls, plays Winston Churchill, not at the beginning of his career, but at what instead would become the start of his fame. The movie covers a small portion of Churchill’s time in office, from his appointment as prime minister on May 10, 1940 to the delivery of his famous “We Shall Fight on the Beaches” speech less than a month later.
It’s a balancing act, to truthfully depict a man simultaneously shouldering the best and worst aspects of his country in order to defend her and her citizens.
Churchill’s wife, Clementine (Kristin Scott Thomas), serves as a much-needed reminder that Churchill is a good man, a lovable man even. There is someone underneath all of the hubris and outrageous demands, someone who has the weight of the world on his shoulders.
Lily James’ Ms. Elizabeth Layton provides a sympathetic character to guide us through the story. Though she is not without her cliches (“Your beau?” Churchill asks about a photo on her desk of a man in uniform. “Brother,” she replies.), they are perhaps necessary for us to process the otherwise nuanced emotion of the story.
While he dictates to Ms. Layton, we see Churchill at his most vulnerable. In the middle of a sentence considering terms of surrender to Hitler he stops, unable to finish, unable to “contemplate negotiations.”
We know the outcome of the war with Germany — it’s history, after all — but director Joe Wright (“Atonement,” “Hanna”) makes the war within Churchill a battle worth watching. The new prime minister has worked his whole life for this position, and received it in possibly the largest crisis in England’s history. He is forced to choose between a personal, moral good and a practical, universal good and he sees no one who can help him decide.
No one but England herself. In a stunning moment, Churchill is surrounded by cheering citizens on a crowded subway car, and he suddenly understands that every English man and woman is England, individually and all at once. He is a citizen of his country before he is her leader.
He professes his resolution to fight on, to never “contemplate negotiations with –” and Churchill, the great orator, pauses where he stopped before with Ms. Layton, before finally finishing — “that man.”
It’s grand and cinematic, with a generally dark set and bold spotlights on characters, but “Darkest Hour” never loses its sense of scale. Each shot is framed beautifully and is visually dramatic, but the horror of Hitler can only be summed up in the simplicity of “that man.”
Wright uses the same technique, transitioning from grand to plain, to simplify our view of Churchill. The first conversation we see between Churchill and his king, George VI, is bold: a wide shot with the two silhouetted by imposing windows. Churchill accepts his newly appointed position and, immediately, the two are at an impasse on every front, even down to what time they should hold their weekly meetings.
But, by the end of the film when George comes to Churchill’s private quarters in the middle of the night, they exchange conversation in tight, intimate shots. They’ve overcome their differences with the realization that England cannot — can never — surrender, or humanity will be lost as well.
The scene is quiet as the king gives Churchill his full support. And we give him ours, too. Because he is not the imposing Churchill he once was. He is merely a man.
Written by Shelby Loebker.