“I can’t bear it,” says Harry Styles in the final moments of Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk. The soldier Styles plays, Alex, is one of the more than 300,000 Allied soldiers we’ve just seen get rescued by an unlikely citizens’ fleet of merchant marines, yachts, and pleasure craft—rescuers who, on Winston Churchill’s orders, sailed across the English Channel to save these men from the gruesome deaths promised by Hitler’s fast-approaching army. Now, safely returned home, these men face a new enemy: the prideless sting of defeat. The story of Dunkirk, they worry, is less a matter of what they did (survive) than of what they didn’t do (fight). “They’ll be spitting at us in the streets,” Alex says to a fellow soldier, speaking of home.
Enter Churchill. On June 4, 1940, once it was clear that the evacuation of Dunkirk had succeeded far beyond expectations, the British prime minister performed a speech now known as “We Shall Fight on the Beaches.” By the final moments of Dunkirk, it has already been printed in local newspapers, such that the exhausted soldiers get their hands on a copy. “We shall defend our Island,” a soldier reads, “whatever the cost may be, 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, we shall, we shall. In the face of what for many must have felt like the euphoria of victory, Churchill was already looking ahead to the devastation that awaited. This is not a victory speech. It is a deceptively rousing injunction and a promise: Prepare yourselves. We will have to fight.
It’s remarkable that of the handful of films this year to feature Churchill or his rhetoric, the one that best captures the man’s intelligent contradictions is Dunkirk, a movie in which the beleaguered wartime leader doesn’t even appear and is in fact barely mentioned. But he doesn’t need to show up in Nolan’s movie for its final shot—the split second that the exhausting, uncertain implications of Churchill’s speech register on a young soldier’s face—to reflect back on him with such clarity. The end of Dunkirk neatly encapsulates one of the bitterest ironies of wartime leadership, particularly Churchill’s. It reminds us that the real story of Dunkirk doesn’t end in 1940, with the entire British army being rescued from the war. It ends, of course, with them getting sent right back into it.
Dunkirk communicates that idea in the space of one scene—one look, really. Joe Wright’s Darkest Hour—which ends with the same big speech but gives it to us straight from the horse’s mouth—struggles to make as rich a point with it, and that’s not for lack of trying. Wright’s film, which is only the latest historical drama to tackle Churchill’s wartime legacy with a whole lot of actorly period fuss, showcases Gary Oldman’s jowly, temperamental, and deeply conflicted, but also persuasively resolute, prime minister. It’s a big performance—and for a short while, at least, Darkest Hour seems like it will be an equally big movie.
Things gets off to a fiery start. It’s May 9, 1940, and Hitler, a title card tells us, has already invaded Czechoslovakia, Poland, Denmark, and Norway. His army of millions is poised to invade Belgium and France, too, and from there, the rest of Europe. Britain’s House of Commons, meanwhile, is in the midst of arguing that the appeasement policies of the current prime minister, Neville Chamberlain (Ronald Pickup), have left the country “ruinously unprepared” for war. Chamberlain must go. The logical choice to replace him, fellow Conservative Viscount Halifax (Stephen Dillane), turns down the job. The only man left, someone both Conservatives and the opposition will accept (if begrudgingly), is our man Churchill.
As Wright’s movie shows, Churchill is no one’s first choice. King George VI (Ben Mendelsohn, adding admirable layers of shade to the role in the wake of Colin Firth’s memorable turn in The King’s Speech) was rooting for his pal Halifax. And no one in Parliament seems overly fond of Churchill’s political record, prone as they are to rattling off his mistakes: Gallipoli, the gold standard, the Russian Civil War, and on and on. Some of them accuse him of being a mere performer, only capable of giving the right speech at the right time. Others, like King George, seem to wish Churchill hadn’t disabused himself of good manners. “You scare me,” says the king over one of their weekly lunches. “What nonsense,” responds Churchill. “What could possibly be scary about me?” “One never knows what will come out of your mouth next,” the king says. “Something that will flatter, something that will wound.”
The Churchill of Darkest Hour indeed spends a good amount of time wounding others, though not maliciously. As he says, “My emotions are unbridled—a wildness in the blood.” The character is introduced to us accosting his new typist for double-spacing his correspondence; the entire character of his wife, Clementine (Kristin Scott Thomas), meanwhile, is wrapped up in reminding Winston to try to play nice. The Churchill of Darkest Hour barrels through the hallways of his various lairs in much the same way that he barrels through the everyday challenges of leading the country through a war. That’s all relevant to the central dramatic thread of the movie: a plan, hatched by Halifax and Chamberlain, to get Churchill to admit that he refuses to talk peace with Hitler and Mussolini. It’s an option, these men feel, that’s far better than trying to fight Hitler head-on while the rest of Europe falls all around them. It’s a devastatingly naive position. “Hitler will not insist on outrageous terms,” says Halifax. “He will know his own weaknesses. He will be reasonable.” This, as the Germans close in on the boys at Dunkirk.
“When will the lesson be learned?” shouts Oldman-as-Churchill, in a vein-bursting moment that both justifies Oldman’s Oscar buzz and exemplifies the disadvantages of filling a war Cabinet with former opponents, as Churchill did. “How many more dictators must be wooed, appeased—good God, given immense privileges—before we learn? You cannot reason with a tiger when your head is in its mouth!”
He’s right, obviously, and Joe Wright is justified in letting these tensions dominate so much of his movie, even as it starts to feel redundant. Darkest Hour is not unentertaining if you like to watch people with British accents talk themselves into passive-aggressive knots. But it might be if you’re fatigued of movies that unabashedly flatter their heroes’ flaws by making them seem essential to their moral character, rather than mitigating factors. Everything that’s unappealing about Churchill is made appealing through the monstrous charisma of Oldman’s performance. Almost everyone in the movie dislikes the guy—at first, anyway—and yet there’s never any real risk that he’ll fall out of favor with us, too. That’s partially, broadly speaking, because of Churchill’s overwhelmingly positive legacy. But it’s also because our sense of the man is so wrapped up in the rich largesse of Oldman’s gestures, and the marble-mouthed, cigar-chewing fullness and anger latent in his speech. The film intros us to Churchill with a shot of him smoking a cigar in bed, in the dark, with the red of the embers announcing him before we even really know who he is. It’s an entrance, capital E. And an enjoyable one.
But what’s at stake in Darkest Hour isn’t really Churchill’s charisma or even his personality. What’s at stake is his character. His moral fiber. And on that subject, the movie has less to say, which is why the shift toward self-doubt that Churchill undergoes late in the film, as the Dunkirk situation grows more dire and peace talks seem like the only way out, feels a little squandered. It’s fascinating to think that a man this bullish, this confident in his capacity to see Hitler for who he is, should begin to question himself. But who is the self coming under question, really? If there’s one thing this movie’s Churchill isn’t, it’s ideologically rich—even as late-act pivots toward his public persona and his reliance on the people of Britain try to convince us otherwise.
Oldman is quite special, nevertheless. It’s a performance that’s as technically astonishing as it is, simply, fun to watch. What we gather of Churchill’s inner substance, while often obvious, is largely thanks to Oldman’s ability to imagine a fully formed character and serve him up to us in ripe slices of life. The movie isn’t as good at accomplishing the same. But Oldman towers so grandly over it all that it doesn’t need to be.