Dunkirk: Episode I – The Nazi Menace.
There are only three constants in this topsy-turvy world of ours: death, taxes and World War II movies. There’s not a whole lot we can do about death, and taxes will probably be a point of contention until the day the sun explodes. But there’s no particular reason to complain about World War II movies, at least if they’re as good as the riveting, albeit one-sided Darkest Hour.
Darkest Hour tells the story of Winston Churchill, the Prime Minster of the United Kingdom during World War II, a celebrated orator and an outsized personality. The film kicks off the day before he’s appointed Prime Minister and only gets as far as the evacuation of Dunkirk, approximately one month later.
Unlike Christopher Nolan’s recent historical drama Dunkirk, which was a 70mm epic filled with battles and dogfights and collapsing naval vessels, Darkest Hour takes place in smokey rooms and bunkers, and puts a lot of emphasis on giving dictation. And yet Darkest Hour is a gripping World War II drama in its own right. Maybe even more so than Dunkirk.
Joe Wright, the director of Atonement and Anna Karenina, never resists the urge to spruce up an old-fashioned character piece with bombastic filmmaking. In Darkest Hour, Wright sculpts scenes out of darkness and smoke, and seemingly knows the right moments to rotate his camera for dramatic effect. He’s not showing off; he’s telling a story about people talking in rooms with all the cinematic dynamism he needs to sell just how important the words really are. And he does his job extremely well.
Gary Oldman stars as Winston Churchill and gives a bravura performance, because Gary Oldman is a bravura actor and Winston Churchill is a bravura character. Oldman disappears into the Prime Minister’s iconic mannerisms and finds moments of subtlety in Churchill’s notoriously boisterous vocal patterns. He’s not acting melodramatically, but rather playing a melodramatic person, and he’s nailing it every step of the way.
Darkest Hour depicts Churchill’s first month as Prime Minister as an intense tug-of-war between politicians who would compromise with the Nazis to save the lives of their countrymen, and Churchill, who would rather risk the lives of his countrymen to avoid compromising with Nazis. It’s the sort of debate that’s infinitely easier to think about in hindsight, and Wright’s showpersonship is certainly intended to make the film’s foregone conclusion (since we all know how World War II ends, and heck, we probably just saw Dunkirk) seem as nerve-racking as humanly possible.
But the downside of a film like Darkest Hour – an impressively made film, make no mistake – is that the push to tell this particular story, about this moment of monumental fortitude that was almost ruined by Churchill’s personal doubts, does reduce an important piece of history to one of those “great man” narratives. It’s Churchill versus the world, and since it’s Churchill’s movie, Churchill comes out looking spectacularly well. Even when Darkest Hour brings up the topic of the Prime Minister’s failings (of which there were many, and some of them odious), it gives Churchill the last word, to argue that everything would have turned out fine if only someone had listened to him.
Still, it’s important to remember that historical movies aren’t history lessons. Darkest Hour tells its version of these events from a limited viewpoint, mostly Churchill’s, and it seems to exist largely to add to his legend and inspire the audience to be more legendary in return. In that respect it does a bang-up job. It’s both thrilling and inspiring in equal measure. But with its one-sidedness comes a brash simplicity that probably keeps Darkest Hour from achieving the same greatness that it clearly sees in its subject.