“He mobilized the English language and sent it into battle.”
Winston Churchill is an icon. He is most certainly counted among the greatest (if not the greatest) statesmen of the twentieth century. His voice and inspiring speeches are well known. He led Britain when they stood almost alone against Nazi Germany. And yet, no one really wanted him as Prime Minister. Darkest Hour shows us the early crisis that he faced on becoming Prime Minister, and how close to failure he came.
The film opens on May 9, 1940, just as Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain (Ronald Pickup) is being forced to resign because of his handling of the situation in Europe. While others in the party would like the Viscount Halifax (Stephen Dillane) to assume the leadership, he prefers to wait until “his time”. The only person who would be able to have the needed support of the opposition is Churchill (Gary Oldman), whom everyone loathes. He is seen as a failure, a drunk, too old (65), an inept bumbler who is too war hungry. Others would seek a diplomatic solution, especially since the entire British army is stranded at Dunkirk. (It is a happy coincidence that Dunkirk played this summer so we can have a better understanding of just how dire that situation was.) Even King George VI is upset that he must ask Churchill to become Prime Minister.
Over the next few days (the film only covers less than three weeks) Churchill must simultaneously try to save the stranded army, prepare the nation for war, and keep his government together even as members of his own party try to undermine him. At times it seems his only allies are his wife Clemmie (Kristin Scott Thomas) and new typist Elizabeth Layton (Lily James).
The Winston Churchill we see in this film is not yet the legend he is to become. He is surely bigger than life. He is loud, rude, and self-absorbed. But essentially he is determined. While others are willing to seek peace with Hitler at any cost, Churchill seems almost alone in understanding that this is a battle against evil that must be fought. He will not allow the underhanded politics to stop him as he sets the British nation on a path to stand firm against Germany.
Much of the film deals with the question of peace. Is Churchill wrong to discount the possibility of peace talks to avoid the war? When Halifax makes his case, it is not unlike the arguments made before any war—arguments that many in the US made before the Iraq War, for example. And there are many who find those arguments persuasive. Looking back at history, we understand why Churchill felt he must stand firm against Hitler. But in the few days that this film covers, that sentiment was far from obvious. It meant that Britain would be standing alone against a powerful adversary.
This is not just a story of legend coming to be. It shows us his very human, at times even eccentric nature. While we generally think that Churchill was the obvious person to lead Britain at that critical time, in this film we see that it was a job he grew into—and had to do so very quickly. We also get to hear bits of his early speeches—speeches that won the support of the British people in what would be a very trying battle for the nation’s very life. There are reasons that we view Churchill as an icon. We see the beginnings of that in this film.