By Ellie Baker,
May 13, 1940– Prime Minister Winston Churchill speaks to Parliament for the first time: “I have nothing to offer but blood, toil, tears, and sweat.” “Darkest Hour” delivers Churchill’s promise to its audience, proving just how powerful and compelling this catalytic mixture can be.
This six-time Oscar nominated film follows the life of Winston Churchill (Gary Oldman) as he struggles to make one of the gravest decisions in history. “Darkest Hour” begins on May 9, 1940 with a raucous parliamentary demand for the resignation of Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain (Ronald Pickup), and culminates on June 4, 1940 as Churchill orates his famous speech committing the British Empire to a war in which “we shall never surrender.”
In this short period of time, Churchill must decide whether to enter into peace talks with Nazi Germany, or commit to fight Nazi Germany until “death or glory.” The odds are in favor of the former, as Viscount Halifax (Stephen Dillane), Churchill’s sly adversary and advocate for “peace,” notes.
Hindsight makes the choice obvious, but director Joe Wright, the cast and screenwriter Anthony McCarten wrap us into the days, hours, minutes and seconds when the choice was excruciatingly difficult, both to decide and to carry out.
Time passes relentlessly. Giant calendar dates syncopate the days, church bells strike the hour, and we are surrounded by the unflagging forward march of the second hand as cellos methodically repeat a single note and cameras pan to clocks.
Cinematography intensifies the crushing pressure and consequences of time. Ground views and close-ups of individuals shift to aerial shots, evoking the imminent casualties of bombings.
Given the dire situation and enormous feat of Churchill’s final decision, it would be easy to label Churchill a genius– untouchable and unfollowable. However, brilliant acting by Gary Oldman ensures we do not feel isolated from the protagonist.
Churchill mumbles and grumbles, stutters and mutters. He has made serious mistakes– opposition alludes to his failed military strategy during World War I– is uncertain of himself, and has an ornery temper.
In one moment of insecurity and vulnerability, Churchill crumples into a chair. Churchill’s wife (Kristin Scott Thomas) bolsters him, “You are strong because you are imperfect; you are wise because you have doubts.”
A departure from movies packed with heroes, glorifying boundless daring and genius– putting emphasis on their success, rather than the grueling work that got them there– “Darkest Hour” maps the “blood, toil, tears and sweat” that drive Churchill’s ultimate success.
“Darkest Hour” inspires us, just as Winston Churchill inspired the people of England in 1940. Not with a grand exclamation of his superior abilities and skills, but the demonstration of humility, relentlessness, determination and commitment to hard work. We leave the theater believing that we, too, can combat “the menace of tyranny, if necessary, for years, if necessary, alone.”