“What just happened?”
“He mobilized the English language and sent it into battle.”
That observation, from Viscount Halifax (Stephen Dillane), captures the essence of what Winston Churchill accomplishes during World War II with his ringing, “We shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets … we shall never surrender” speech to Parliament on June 4, 1940.
Delivered at what was truly Britain’s darkest hour, as Europe was being overrun in the Nazi blitzkrieg and the British army was trying to escape the onslaught via Dunkirk, it helped stiffen the nation’s resolve to stand and resist the onrushing darkness.
In the role of Churchill in “Darkest Hour,” Gary Oldman, looking remarkably like the man himself thanks to layers of carefully applied prosthetic makeup, delivers that and several other earlier orations with a conviction and an eloquence that makes the hair stand on end.
Asked to serve as prime minister by King George VI (Ben Mendelsohn) despite deep reservations felt about him by Halifax and Neville Chamberlain (Ronald Pickup), his predecessor in the prime minster’s office, and even by the king himself, Churchill is to a large degree a man alone.
Chamberlain and Halifax pressure him to negotiate a separate peace with Hitler as the war news grows ever more dire.
Churchill must therefore fend off his political rivals and press forward with running the war effort despite his own serious doubts that Britain will be able to survive, let alone prevail.
Under the direction of Joe Wright (“Pride & Prejudice,” “Atonement”), Oldman disappears into the role to present a portrait of the man in full: steely yet conflicted, irascible yet sometimes tender (the latter emotion shown with wife Clementine, played by the estimable Kristin Scott Thomas), cagey yet brash.
Oldman is compelling in the part, but the movie is historically dubious in several respects.
Wright and screenwriter Anthony McCarten have seen fit to invent a scene in which Churchill ventures into the London Underground and in essence polls the subway passengers as to whether they support fighting the Nazis. They do, and bucked up by the response of the common folk, Churchill goes to Parliament and delivers his stemwinder. Never happened.
Also given a prominent role is Lily James, playing a dewy young typist named Elizabeth Layton, who serves as Churchill’s personal secretary and sounding board as he works out his ideas.
She’s a kind of stand-in for the audience with whom the viewer can easily relate. However historian John Broich, writing in slate.com, notes that the real-life Layton didn’t start working for Churchill until a year after the events depicted in the movie.
“Darkest Hour” is visually gritty in scenes set in Churchill’s claustrophobic underground war bunker.
Portly and with an ever-present cigar clenched in his teeth, Oldman is an arresting presence from the moment Wright introduces him with a match flaring to light up his face in a darkened room.
He shows us a man of great complexity, a great man who changed the course of history with his courage and his magnificent rhetoric.
☆☆☆ out of 4
Cast: Gary Oldman, Kristin Scott Thomas, Lily James, Stephen Dillane, Ronald Pickup and Ben Mendelsohn.
Director: Joe Wright
Running time: 2:05
Rated: PG-13 for some thematic material