Awards season has arrived, which means that for the rest of the year we can expect lots of big movies with big actors playing big people. Christmas weekend brings Hugh Jackman as circus mogul P.T. Barnum in Michael Gracey’s The Greatest Showman, Christopher Plummer (a last-minute replacement for Kevin Spacey) as billionaire J. Paul Getty in Ridley Scott’s All the Money in the World, and, in Steven Spielberg’s The Post, Meryl Streep and Tom Hanks as the Washington Post‘s gutsy publisher, Kay Graham, and executive editor, Ben Bradlee. English actor Gary Oldman—who first made a name for himself in the U.S. playing such real-life figures as punk rocker Sid Vicious in Sid and Nancy (1986) and playwright Joe Orton in Prick Up Your Ears (1987)—may have landed the biggest whale of all with his role as Winston Churchill in Joe Wright’s Darkest Hour, chronicling the monthlong period, from May to June 1940, when Churchill was elected prime minister of Great Britain and rallied both its government and its people to fight Hitler to the death.
Oscar oddsmakers are already handing the best actor award to Oldman, and Darkest Hour turns up among a half-dozen features favored for best picture. Weirdly, its biggest competition is another film covering the exact same period: Christopher Nolan’s epic Dunkirk, about the evacuation of Allied soldiers from the French port town of the title. This may be the first time two movies might reasonably share the statuette, because each of them supplies an aspect of the story that the other lacks. Darkest Hour invites viewers inside the heart and mind of a great leader but never really captures his deep rapport with the British people, which turned out to be one of his greatest political assets. Dunkirk takes a more populist approach, using an ensemble cast to dramatize the stories of ordinary Brits swept up in the great struggle, though the film gives little sense of how the evacuation fit into the wider war or how, back at home, some considered the UK already lost and pressured Churchill to sue for peace with Nazi Germany.
Like Spielberg’s Lincoln (2012), Darkest Hour focuses on a time of great political trial for its subject, the better to expose his leadership’s essence. After Hitler’s invasion of Poland forced France and Great Britain to declare war against Germany in September 1939, a seven-month lull in major hostilities persuaded many in the UK that the conflict—mocked as “the Bore War”—would soon be resolved. But in April 1940, German forces landed in Denmark and Norway, and on May 10, Hitler launched an all-out assault against Holland, Belgium, and France. Darkest Hour opens in early May with a parliamentary debate over the Norway debacle that forces Neville Chamberlain to resign as prime minister and empowers Churchill, his secretary of the admiralty, to form a new government. Churchill’s first military test, beginning May 26, is the rescue of some 338,000 British, French, and Belgian soldiers trapped at Dunkirk; the movie climaxes with his heroic June 4 speech to the House of Commons, in which he promises Hitler, “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 fight in the hills; we shall never surrender.”
With his giant cigar and ever-present glass of scotch, his frenetic energy and explosive temper, Churchill was a larger-than-life character, and more than 200 actors have played him onscreen. Oldman humanizes the man, capturing not only his fury (when his typist, played by Lily James, introduces a minor error into his correspondence) but also his compassion (when she reveals later that her brother died at Dunkirk). Churchill is delighted to learn that his bungled, backward V-for-Victory sign, captured in a now-famous newspaper photo, is a street gesture meaning “Up your bum!” His pugnacity endeared him to the British and inspired those around him; screenwriter Anthony McCarten need only quote Churchill’s actual words when the prime minister rouses his war cabinet to fight, declaring, “If this long island story of ours is to end at last, let it end only when each one of us lies choking in his own blood upon the ground.” What actor could resist such a line?
A highly verbal movie, Darkest Hour shows how the ability to articulate a nation’s ideals can become its own source of political power. Churchill’s remarks to the House of Commons, delivered after the near-miraculous Dunkirk evacuation, were published around the world and stood as a declaration of national purpose. “Even repeated by the announcer, it sent shivers (not of fear) down my spine,” the writer Vita Sackville-West remembered. “I think one of the reasons why one is stirred by his Elizabethan phrases is that one feels the whole massive backing of power and resolve behind them, like a great fortress: they are never words for words’ sake.” In Darkest Hour, even Churchill’s foreign secretary, Viscount Halifax (Stephen Dillane), whose advice to negotiate with Hitler has been soundly rejected, recognizes Churchill’s oratorical gift, observing from the balcony, “He has mobilized the English language and sent it into battle.”
Churchill’s resolve came partly from his own character but primarily from his faith in the people. “Churchill was never modest, yet he bridled at the suggestion that he had transformed Britons,” wrote historian William Manchester. “He believed the British race had ‘the lion heart’; he only supplied the roar.” Unfortunately for Darkest Hour, the time frame of the story offers no good opportunity to dramatize this. McCarten’s big gambit is a silly scene near the end of the movie in which Churchill, urged by King George VI (Ben Mendelsohn) to seek the people’s counsel, boards a subway train bound for Westminster and conducts a straw poll of the startled riders, an assortment of working-class Brits who unanimously endorse his position of taking the fight to the Germans. (In fact, Churchill made his last trip on the London Underground in 1926 and was so confused by the intersecting train lines that, according to his wife, he got lost and had to be retrieved.)
If you want to see the lionheart in action, the film for you is Dunkirk, in which Nolan restages the evacuation from the air (with Tom Hardy as a dashing RAF pilot), the ground (with Fionn Whitehead as a British soldier threatened by German air bombardment), and the sea (with Mark Rylance as one of the 850-odd British civilians who raced across the English Channel in private vessels to ferry soldiers back to the UK). Largely devoid of dialogue, Dunkirk (which has closed theatrically but debuts on DVD and streaming services December 19) is a supremely visceral experience, especially in the agonizing moments when ground soldiers brace themselves for the impact of bombs they can’t possibly escape. Yet the narrative is so localized that you may have trouble connecting the three stories to each other, let alone to the history of World War II. The brightest moment of illumination comes at the end, when one of the soldiers reads aloud a newspaper reprint of Churchill’s speech to the House of Commons. Dunkirk and Darkest Hour are like two halves of one brilliant war movie, but don’t expect a negotiated settlement on Oscar night. v