May 1940: Hitler is riding roughshod across Europe, gobbling up territory like an insatiable monster. Norway, Poland, Czechoslovakia, and Denmark have all fallen. Belgium, Holland, and France are falling. Britain is next. England’s current Prime Minister, Neville Chamberlain, wants to negotiate with Herr Hitler in a foolish attempt to secure peace, but the rest of Parliament isn’t so sure. Surely something can be done before the Crown falls under the heel of the Reich?

There is one who will make that stand, and not just to the German bully across the Channel but also to the weasels within. Enter The Last Lion, England’s newly minted prime minister: Winston Churchill (Gary Oldman). Between slugs of Scotch and puffs on his cigar, Churchill will dig his heels in, find the backing he needs to wage war, and keep the Western Hemisphere from falling under the tyranny of evil.

Sound dramatic enough? Well, Darkest Hour depicts a very dramatic time, and director Joe Wright and writer Anthony McCarten make sure every scene, no matter how minor, continues to ratchet up the tension, turning Darkest Hour into a propulsive and engrossing war film of words and bureaucratic backroom dealings.

As the title suggests, Darkest Hour does not take a wide-angle lens to World War II. Instead, Wright and McCarten zero in on three crucial weeks, specifically May 9–28, from Churchill’s appointment to the Dunkirk evacuation. This, along with Dario Marianelli’s score and Bruno Delbonnel’s outstanding cinematography, gives the film vim and vigor and Churchill all the space he needs.

Darkest Hour is not a flawless movie, but it is anchored by a flawless performance from Oldman as The British Bulldog. Working under a good deal of makeup and plenty of cigar smoke, Oldman physically depicts the weight of the world on his shoulders as he defiantly shuffles around 10 Downing Street and London’s underground war room. Oldman—who once transformed himself into punk rock’s iconic lost boy, Sid Vicious, for Alex Cox’s Sid and Nancy—embodies the very spirit of Churchill: his rebelliousness and his ability to swallow a room whole.

This might explain why his wife, Clementine (Kristin Scott Thomas, an outstanding actress in a thankless role), gets short shrift. Or why his assistant, Elizabeth Layton (Lily James), has little more to do than tiptoe timidly around the barking prime minister. Others, Neville Chamberlain (Ronald Pickup) and Halifax (Stephen Dillane) are meant to be weak-willed, allowing Churchill and history to walk all over them. You don’t need to peer too deep to draw parallels between Chamberlain and Halifax with contemporary politicians. They aren’t the only men who would rather placate a madman than stand up to a bully.

Darkest Hour isn’t the only period film to come out in recent years designed to invoke current political climates. Their proliferation makes the mind wonder: What is it about this particular moment in the 21st century that takes us back to the 20th? Are there lessons still to be learned? Truths that ought to galvanize us? Or, is it that the present isn’t merely an echo of the past, it’s a refrain? 

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Darkest Hour (2017)
Directed by Joe Wright
Written by Anthony McCarten
Produced by Tim Bevan, Lisa Bruce, Eric Fellner, Anthony McCarten, Douglas Urbanski
Starring: Gary Oldman, Kristin Scott Thomas, Ben Mendelsohn, Lily James, Ronald Pickup, Stephen Dillane
Focus Features, Rated PG-13, Running time 125 minutes, Opened Dec. 22, 2017.

A version of the above review first appeared in the pages of Boulder Weekly Vol. 25, No. 19, “The birth of the last lion.”