Brave and uncertain
Darkest Hour shows a complex Winston Churchill at a time of great peril
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In May 1940, Winston Churchill rose to power as prime minister, faced the crisis of Dunkirk, and gave one of the most iconic political speeches of our time.
The value of rhetoric—and the weight of leadership—come to the fore in director Joe Wright’s monumental biopic, Darkest Hour.
“I wanted to show a man capable of being uncertain,” screenwriter Anthony McCarten said.
Gary Oldman stars as Churchill, and with ample prosthetics he becomes the witty, blustering figure of classic newsreels. Some reviewers have agreed this is one of Oldman’s most compelling performances to date for his mixture of bravado and uncertainty during a difficult era of history.
May 1940 was a dark hour indeed for England: Germany threatens invasion; at home, indecision stokes political strife. Swearing, as well as brief war violence and mild innuendo, warrant the film’s PG-13 rating.
Oldman’s Churchill begins as a seemingly vulnerable, crotchety man: He lights a cigar in bed, the match illuminating half his face in his curtained bedroom. He chases away his typist (played by Lily James) with his acerbic wit until his wife, a poised Kristen Scott Thomas, chastises him.
“I don’t want you to be disliked,” she says.
However, few of Churchill’s peers liked him. The script emphasizes Churchill as an underdog choice for prime minister, and many politicians translate his refusal to seek terms with Germany as a war hawk stance. In a subplot reminiscent of the Persian advisers who sought to incriminate Daniel, a cadre of Parliament tries to entrap Churchill into a self-destructive slip of the tongue.
Churchill sticks to his patriotism and beliefs, though he is never afraid to consider others’ opinions: In one scene, Churchill says he chose some members of his war Cabinet because they were rivals who would openly disagree with his opinions.
We admire Churchill’s leadership today because he refused to give up the Allied cause, but Darkest Hour depicts how, in the moment, the right decision is not so easy to make. The war room discussion of Dunkirk is especially intriguing, given modern hindsight: Churchill sweats over dire, time-sensitive choices and the thousands of human lives hanging in the balance.
In the midst of political machinations and confrontational war room meetings, though, the film takes time to show us the small moments of Churchill’s humor and humanity: Early on, he stares at a massive hat rack in his home, deciding which hat to pick for a visit to the king.
The real star of Churchill’s story is his rhetoric, his ability to give speeches that capture hearts and convey truth. The script luxuriates in large portions of Churchill’s Parliament and radio addresses, and the words, calling British citizens to stand against a seemingly insurmountable evil, ring just as profoundly 70 years later.
“Before Winston Churchill was anything else, he was a writer,” McCarten said. “He was a man who at the core of his poetic soul … [believed] that words matter.”
Darkest Hour might draw unfortunate parallels to Churchill, another 2017 biopic that focuses on a later portion of World War II, and Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk. In Wright’s hands the parallels are in name only. Headline-sized dates increase tension, and many shots show Churchill, in a pool of light, surrounded by darkness. The evocative cinematography, brilliant performances, and smart script will likely garner several Oscar nominations.
In the film, as in real life, Churchill views God more as a rhetorical device than as a Being to trust: “My father was like God. Busy elsewhere,” he quips. However, Churchill’s life code—and his approach to leadership—offer much to admire.
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