Darkest Hour: We Shall Never Surrender, by David Bax
“I’ve never ridden a bus,” says Winston Churchill (Gary Oldman), on his way to be formally made Prime Minister by King George VI (Ben Mendelsohn). Well, to be more accurate, he mumbles it. With Churchill’s mushmouth, the king’s stammer and the soft Rs of Viscount Halifax (Stephen Dillane), Joe Wright’s Darkest Hour is an endless parade of speech impediments. Nevertheless Churchill begins his rule of the British people with an admission, if only to himself and his chauffeur, that he has very little in common with them.
For the next two hours, we’ll watch Churchill grab hold of his newfound power with both hands and use it to engineer the rescue of over 300,000 British soldiers from the beach at Dunkirk. To do so, he’ll have to weather the doubts of his secretary, Elizabeth Layton (Lily James), his predecessor, Neville Chamberlain (Ronald Pickup), his own family, his party, Halifax, King George and, maybe once or twice, even himself. More importantly, he’ll have to learn how to govern and even protect the British people, most of whom he was destined to socially outrank long before he was born.
Of course, we know that Churchill became a successful and respected wartime leader, and so it may seem difficult to sympathize with all the shouting and handwringing his premiership inspires. Anticipating this, Wright and screenwriter Anthony McCarten allow us to experience misgivings by not relegating them to the antagonists. Sure, Chamberlain and Halifax, who still want to negotiate a peace with Hitler, are the loudest opponents in the (very loud) movie. But even Churchill’s wife, Clementine (Kristin Scott Thomas), whose love for him is never in doubt, expresses apprehension at his insistence on victory as the only option. Thus we have the context to understand what he was facing, even if it still may be difficult in the present day not to root for a head of state with a quarter century of political experience and a fervor for kicking the asses of fascists.
Darkest Hour has an unexpected bounty of humor in it, such as the phone call between Churchill and Franklin Roosevelt in which Churchill asks for help and FDR laments that he “can’t swing it,” before offering instead a ludicrous scenario involving horses pulling a phalanx of B4 bombers across the border into Canada. Still, even that back and forth ends with a melancholy shot of Churchill, alone in a locked lavatory that reduces the aspect ratio to a tall, narrow triangle in the middle of the frame, surrounded on either side by a field of darkness. This is a repeat of an earlier shot using the same effect but with an elevator instead of a loo. This expressionistic theatricality is a hallmark of Wright’s but here it feels less contrived and more connected to the character’s emotions than in something like Anna Karenina. In another scene, the small, red “on-air” bulb that lights up when Churchill first addresses the nation via radio manages to somehow wash the whole room in a glowing crimson. It feels hot and suffocating and probably a lot like what the Prime Minister is going through at the moment.
That sort of behind-the-scenes detail is just the tip of the iceberg of what Wright aims to depict here, which is nothing less than the machinery of wartime government. In comparison to something like Spielberg’s Lincoln, in which the narrative lives and dies on social protocol and decorum, Darkest Hour depicts a utilitarian apparatus of people filling roles and completing duties, from minister and generals on down to secretaries. We spend a lot of time in the bowels of 10 Downing Street, which come to resemble a factory, each room a different stop on the assembly line, filled with individuals carrying out their own part of the war.
Still, there’s the ironic presence of upper-class trappings amidst the gray-brick grind. When Churchill meets with French leaders in an airplane hangar surrounded by vehicles and machines of large-scale violence, someone has first taken the time to bring in leather backed chairs and crystal decanters filled with fine liquor. The only glimpse we get of human beings personally affected by the war—French citizens fleeing towns en masse as the Germans approach—is seen from the well-appointed fuselage of a private government plane far above. Churchill and his cohorts must shout over the clacking of typewriter keys, not dodge gunfire. Yet Wright makes his boldest statement when he appears to argue that, to some extent, this kind of distance is necessary. A leader of people must, on many occasions, treat his subjects as a single mass and not as individual human beings. It’s callous but it’s essential. In its final scenes, though, the film offers up that the only safeguard against despotism is the honest truth. Darkest Hour works as a biopic but finds grace in its advocacy for democratic ideals.