Until this year, perhaps the greatest piece of moviemaking about Dunkirk was only part of a movie: It was a breathtaking sequence of the massive World War II evacuation, filmed in one astonishing five-minute take that dramatically punctuated the movie “Atonement,” directed by Joe Wright.
Now Wright returns with a fully fledged Dunkirk film: “Darkest Hour” is already receiving awards chatter for Gary Oldman’s deliciously crafty portrayal of the film’s main subject, a newly minted British prime minister named Winston Churchill. But this isn’t just film-as-backdrop for a towering central performance. Wright brings his signature good taste — including sumptuous, jewel-box sets and elegantly staged set pieces — to an enterprise in which Oldman’s hugely enjoyable star turn is equaled by similarly well-judged performances from Kristin Scott Thomas and Ben Mendelsohn.
Handsomely filmed, intelligently written, accented with just a dash of outright hokum, “Darkest Hour” ends a year already laden with terrific films about the same subject — including the winsome comedy-drama “Their Finest” and Christopher Nolan’s boldly visual interpretive history “Dunkirk” — and ties it up with a big, crowd-pleasing bow.
“Darkest Hour” begins in May 1940, when the war is already underway in Europe, accommodationist forces still hold sway in Britain, and German troops have taken France, setting their sights on the island across the English Channel. When Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain is forced to resign, the vagrant winds of fortune blow in Churchill’s general direction: Although he has recently been in the “wilderness” after a disastrous political career, he’s deemed the most acceptable choice among flawed contenders.
“It’s not a gift,” he says grumpily when the PM position is dangled before him. “It’s revenge.”
Following the template of the most riveting biopics, screenwriter Anthony McCarten eschews the soup-to-nuts Wikipedia approach, instead drilling down into the period that would shape Churchill into the iconic figure whose high-toned comportment and rhetoric seem like dimly remembered dreams today.
“Darkest Hour” features many of the humorous Churchill-isms that make him enduringly beloved: the cigar, the long baths, the love of champagne, the cuddly-curmudgeon wit. But it also gets to the canny, self-aware operator beneath the avuncular surface: When he broadcasts his first big speech, his actorly instincts take over, and it’s clear he’s a natural who’s best on his feet and under pressure.
The evacuation of Allied troops from Dunkirk would be his first definitive act as prime minister, and “Darkest Hour” chronicles his decisions whether to capitulate or fight as the crisis of invasion grows more imminent. The filmmakers note that he’s not above lying to the public, but his love for the country is never in doubt, an idea expressed in the film’s most bogus but unapologetically entertaining scene, set on a crowded London subway car in which the aristocratic Churchill enjoys a fleeting connection with the everyday people he seeks to both serve and rally to his side.
It’s a classic movie-moment, but “Darkest Hour” is even better during interstitial encounters between Churchill and his wife, Clementine (Scott Thomas), and King George VI, portrayed by Mendelsohn with disarming delicacy and pathos. Working behind layers of makeup and prosthetics, Oldman proves why he’s considered one of the greatest screen actors of his generation, delivering a fully inhabited characterization that rewards the audience’s appetite for familiar speeches and gestures, but also takes into account Churchill’s talent for self-invention and stagecraft, statesmanship and political survival.
As a portrait of leadership at its most brilliant, thoughtful and morally courageous, “Darkest Hour” is the movie we need right now.