'Darkest Hour' Offers a Timely Lesson in Leadership

Gary Oldman's performance in 'Darkest Hour' just won him a Best Actor Golden Globe; it's the right film for this particular moment in history

Golden Globe winner Gary Oldman as Winston Churchill in a scene from'Darkest Hour.'
Jack English / Focus Features /

In an unsettled world rocked by a crisis of leadership, British director Joe Wright (“Pride and Prejudice,” “Atonement”) has made the movie the moment calls for. “Darkest Hour” is a basic history lesson in which the righteous triumph over the misguided, and it is also a lesson in leadership. The result will be satisfying for anyone who laments the inadequacies of those currently charting the path of humanity (including in our local context) and longs for strong, enlightened leaders who pursue only the well-being of their people, and of the world as a whole.

Who better to represent such leadership than Winston Churchill – and even more than that, a Churchill facing a leadership crisis, which he fought through with courage and resolve when he refused to abandon his longtime national and global vision? That vision had already motivated Churchill in the 1930s, when to the dismay of fellow members of the Conservative Party, he railed against the dangers of Adolf Hitler’s rise to power in Germany. In May 1940, after the resignation of Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain (Ronald Pickup), who believes he cannot lead Britain through a war (and has also been diagnosed with cancer), King George VI (Ben Mendelsohn) names Churchill as Chamberlain’s successor. The king chooses Churchill even though he finds him off-putting, and – as he admits at one point in the movie – fears his capricious, aggressive behavior.

Soon after taking office, Churchill runs into two serious crises. One is the seemingly doomed evacuation of the 300,000 British troops who fled to Dunkirk beach from the rapidly approaching German army. According to the movie, it is Churchill who comes up with the plan to evacuate the soldiers using every civilian vessel the army can recruit. This decision comes after an embarrassing phone conversation with U.S. President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, who – in an exchange we can only hear, not see – insists rather callously on American neutrality in the face of Churchill’s plea for help. But one detail in the conversation, which actually has to do with horses, gives Churchill the idea for the rescue plan.

The second crisis involves the Viscount Halifax (Stephen Dillane) and Chamberlain’s pressuring of Churchill to negotiate a peace treaty with Hitler, using Mussolini as the middleman, since most of Europe has fallen under Nazi control and an invasion of Britain seems inevitable. This is a shady plot on the part of the ambitious Halifax, because Churchill’s public refusal of such negotiation may be his downfall. The movie, which avoids historical complexity at all costs, does not hint at the theory that Halifax may also have been a Nazi sympathizer.

Indeed, although it touches on thorny historical questions, “Darkest Hour” steers clear of any complexity, trying to create a universally acceptable historical melodrama about one of the most famous figures in history. The result is almost a kind of historical folklore, and it is to a large extent saved from itself by Gary Oldman’s skillful, clever performance as Churchill, whom he resembles thanks to a great deal of makeup and body padding. Even Oldman, however, cannot keep Churchill from being portrayed as the source of absolute, unquestioning sympathy and identification, in part thanks to the folkloric portrait of his quintessential British eccentricity, as required of such a historic British icon (Churchill in the movie even mentions the claim that all babies look like him).

The Churchill of “Darkest Hour” is a heroic leader of the supreme variety. When the ending leaves his rival Halifax– not a spoiler for anyone who knows even a little about wartime Britain – defeated and isolated, abandoned even by such allies as Chamberlain, we have to fight the urge to cheer, as we do when villains get their comeuppance in superhero movies. “Darkest Hour” works because it lays the drama of the story bare, but it is a simplistic work. Even before that final triumph, the king even pays a surprise nighttime visit to 10 Downing Street to pledge Churchill his support, whatever happens in Parliament.

Formative moment

To make the movie accessible, Wright and screenwriter Anthony McCarten needed two important components. First, we must have a main character to represent “ordinary” Britons, a purpose served by Elizabeth Layton (Lily James), Churchill’s young typist, who is at first frightened by her gruff boss but gradually forms a warm relationship with him (including a sentimental moment that involves Lily’s private life, when she demonstrates the famous restraint and stamina of the British people). Second, Wright and McCarten add a fictional scene that shows that if a character early in a movie says he or she has never used public transportation, there is a subway ride in his or her future. In this scene Churchill sneaks out of his house and descends to the London Underground to question the surprised passengers, which for him represent all of British society, where they stand on the issue of negotiating with Hitler. Among them is one black man, and the movie clearly shows its manipulative side in revealing him to be the most educated person in the group. Several scenes focus on Churchill’s relationship with his beloved wife, Clementine, a fascinating character in her own right. Although Kristin Scott Thomas brings her usual competence to this role, all she really does is express support for her husband.

Is it a coincidence that “Darkest Hour” is the second 2017 picture to return to the evacuation of Dunkirk (it came out a few months after Christopher Nolan’s excellent “Dunkirk”)? The operation would eventually take on a mythic, heroic aura, precisely because it contained an element of failure. It is not surprising, therefore, that this incident has become a formative historical moment for a disordered world, which seems to be heading toward dark times and yearns for peaks of honest solidarity and human endurance. Wright himself has dealt with Dunkirk before: we have not forgotten the long, unbroken shot of the beach in “Atonement,” which seemed like a calculated, showy tour de force.

There are no such displays in “Darkest Hour.” Except for Wright’s tendency to shoot from a very high vantage point, the movie is directed with the correctness of well-made British cinema, but without much visual inspiration. It is interesting mainly because it was made at this particular historical moment and for the messages it delivers to us right now. Though not a major cinematic achievement, the movie is valid – and worth seeing – for this reason alone.