“He can be an awful brute!” exclaims Kristin Scott Thomas as Clemmie Churchill to describe her husband, the Prime Minister-elect of Britain. And, like all wives are, she is spookily accurate.
A good 10 minutes into the biopic directed by Atonement’s Joe Wright and we’re finally introduced to him in his bedroom, in his robes, through the lens of his new secretary Elizabeth Layton (Baby Driver’s Lily James). She experiences the temper and bullishness of Churchill quickly when she fails to hear him properly and uses double spaces instead of singles in her correspondence typing—well, I’d be angry too!
Churchill tries to dismiss Layton, and so she rushes down the stairs in tears, straight into Mrs. Churchill, thus earning the man the rebuke from his wife and the “brute” epithet.
After the opening scene where the Parliament effectively eviscerates Neville Chamberlain and he is forced to step down, the great debate rages about who should replace the affable dunce of a PM. We learn that Churchill’s colleagues regard him much the same way that his wife does: a brute of a man, and quite a distasteful character.
Churchill isn’t exactly well-liked, mostly because of his spotty record in the Admiralty, his views on India (let’s just say he wasn’t supportive of Gandhi), and his support for Edward VIII during the Abdication Crisis. Should the Conservatives actually invite this beast into the halls of highest power? He was only given the greenlight because he was the only man the opposition parties liked. Plus, it’s not like the UK didn’t have bigger problems they had to deal with.
It’s early 1940 and the Nazis are steamrolling across Europe at the height of their powers. Churchill is appointed to become a wartime commander even as, on all sides, he is beset by internal pressures to broker a peace treaty with Hitler—mostly by flaky aristocrats and nobles fearful of defeat at the hands of Germany and struggling to get an early good ear in with their possibly, or very likely, future occupiers. Ring a bell, bayan o sarili?
In one war room scene Churchill heatedly hurls gentlemanly invectives at Viscount Halifax (Stephen Dillane, whom you may remember as Stannis Baratheon in Game of Thrones), the primogen of the proposal to broker a deal with Hitler through Italy: “When will the lesson be learned? You cannot reason with a tiger, when you head is in its mouth!”
Wright’s strategy in his direction is pressure and pacing, and it’s helped greatly along by focusing on a very short time period of Churchill’s time as PM. Credit screenwriter Anthony McCarten for centering on the five weeks between Churchill taking office as prime minister in May 1940 until the evacuation of the French coastal town of Dunkirk in June.
What the film answers is the question of “what does statecraft mean in a time of crisis and war?” That Churchill became an international symbol of resistance to Nazi rule is now fact, but Wright reveals the inner turmoil and the quiet, doubting moments that plagued the man while he continued to present a public persona that was confident and even arrogant.
In this, Gary Oldman has pulled out his signature thespian bravura, even as he is nearly unrecognizable underneath his fat suit and costume. It's really a credit to the team of production designer Sarah Greenwood and costume designer Jacqueline Durran, who’ve not only given a nifty platform for Oldman to work his genius, but also evoked Churchill’s signature style, habits, and vices while conjuring the 1940s through the set and the whole cast. Oldman’s mastery of body movement, and his deployment of humanitas versus gravitas at the right moments, not only bring Churchill to life but give us a crash course lexicon on the non-verbal expressions of the man—yeah, even his roguish humor and the shine of his eye when he senses a Eureka moment.
Churchill’s insecurity, his fits of depression, his reliance on his family and those closest to him to carry him through the tough decisions may come off as melodrama to Western audiences (and critics, certainly), but these extremes demonstrate the sheer pressure and the requirements of operating at such high risks of governance.
“You are strong because you are imperfect. You are wise because you have doubts,” Clementine assures Churchill in one of those aforementioned quieter scenes.
These, just as much as the blustery moments of oratory and the now much quoted rhetoric, paints us a portrait of vulnerability that pulls back the curtain on what it took to take a sword to the Gordian Knot of the existential dilemma at the heart of Churchill’s first five weeks as PM: should the vastly outgunned UK fight on or break bread with the Germans?
There is a price for each decision. On one hand you’ll be able not to condemn more Brit soldiers to death. But on the other hand, if they lose, there is the imminent and very real threat of invasion, especially with their defeat in France causing the War Cabinet to support opening negotiations with Hitler.
As King George VI (a studied performance by Ben Mendelsohn) urges Churchill to continue the war, he also advises the man to let the people guide him in his decision. The succeeding scenes are full of pathos, and entirely fictional for sure, but they do their job well in putting an emotive ballast to the cerebral subtleties of talking heads, backroom politicking, and convos in underground bunkers.
And just in case you missed the whole hype about Nolan’s film, you can watch Dunkirk as the actual war movie companion to Darkest Hour, and add The King’s Speech to your binge as well as a prequel to this one, for insight into George VI.
Be warned that there is 2 hours and 5 minutes of this historical biopic, so a bathroom break pre-viewing is nigh essential. Also, this one is bagging an Oscar for sure.
Darkest Hour is now screening in Metro Manila cinemas