Darkest Hour belongs to a genre that often inspires shudders this time of year: a period piece about an important historical figure muddling through some crisis or another in a way that helps reshape not only our view of him but also our view of the world. "Oscar bait," some might say, with a despairing sigh.
And, look: there's reason for wariness. (See: The King's Speech or this year's Victoria and Abdul.) But Darkest Hour rises above the trappings of its genre thanks to a stirring performance by Gary Oldman and clever-but-never-overbearing direction from Joe Wright.
We open on parliament in chaos: Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain (Ronald Pickup) is out, having lost the support of the opposition party needed to maintain a ruling coalition. But who shall succeed him in this dire moment, as British troops flee Europe with the Wehrmacht on their heels? Chamberlain and his Tory allies would prefer Viscount Halifax (Stephen Dillane), but he cannot muster the needed support to form a coalition.
Now is the time for Winston Churchill (Oldman), who we meet at the same time as his new typist. We see him as she does: terrifying and brusque with just enough fastidiousness in his manner to make messing up inevitable. Winston's gruff, overbearing, and quick to annoyance—"RIPE, p-p-p" he yells after she reads back to him "the time is right"—but quickly calmed by his wife, Clementine (Kristin Scott Thomas), who reminds him that he must be loved if he is to lead and that he must love those he leads.
It's the moments where Churchill is trying his hardest to understand the people that work the best. Yes, Darkest Hour is filled with speeches (the film is structured around a triptych of "Blood, toil, tears, and sweat," "Be ye men of valour," and "We shall fight on the beaches"). Gary Oldman delivers them forcefully and with great skill. But Oldman does his finest work when he is mingling with the masses, when he is trying to convince his typist of the need to hold ground elsewhere and sacrifice many men so an order of magnitude more can escape from the beach at Dunkirk, when he is wandering through the Tube in an effort to connect with the people and gauge the fighting spirit of the men and women of London as war draws ever nearer.
Folks agitated by the fact that Churchill was largely absent from Christopher Nolan's Dunkirk will be thrilled that Wright has filled this film with maps and walk-and-talks and shots of Churchill glowering at the weak-kneed cowards who would pursue peace from an empire as evil as Hitler's. This is very much a traditional biopic, one that happily reinforces the great man theory of politics while also humanizing the great man in question. If you didn't like the more challenging structure of Dunkirk or its ground-eye view of the conflict and evacuation, well, Darkest Hour will certainly be more to your (pedestrian) taste.
I preferred Nolan's film, but Wright's has its pleasures. And he does a masterful job of laying out the stakes without boring the viewer. For instance, there's a great tracking shot that takes us through an embattled encampment, between the wounded men, through the halls of the building within which they have taken refuge and up the chimney and into the air—where we see the German planes flying above, bombs dropping, the camera plummeting back down to the earth. Death is on the way.
More of it would have come, of course, were it not for the decision to stand and fight. And Darkest Hour reminds us just whom we have to thank for that.