“Success is not final, failure is not fatal: it is the courage to continue that counts.” This insightful quote by Winston Churchill encapsulates the heart of this indomitable leader facing almost sure annihilation of the entire British Army by Nazi Germany and the conquering of Europe during World War II. The British biographical war drama film Darkest Hour directed by Joe Wright and written by Anthony McCarten portrays the rising to power of Hitler while Britain falters under its Prime Minister, Neville Chamberlain (Ronald Pickup). King George VI (Ben Mendelsohn) appoints Winston Churchill (Gary Oldman) as the new Prime Minister who is faced with the inevitability of the German superpower swallowing up country after country and looming large near the English Channel in France. Oldman’s portrayal of Churchill is no less than brilliant and utterly believable, imitating even Churchill’s minutest idiosyncrasies.
A brash, unconventional character, loved only by his tolerant wife Clementine (Kristin Scott Thomas), Churchill sees through the ravenous dictator to his true intentions and is determined to stop him at all costs. When he is told the entire British Army is beached at Dunkirk without any possibility of rescue, he is like a mad scientist with a cigar permanently attached to his lips and a glass of brandy in hand exhausting every option of rescue. When President Roosevelt offers no military support Churchill turns to his war council to hesitatingly consider peace negotiations with Hitler, against his better judgment. In his deepest core, however, Churchill knows Hitler will never honor any agreement, no matter how much Britain offers him. He then turns to the British citizens. On a spontaneous subway ride Churchill encounters his citizens who shyly recognize him as the Prime Minister. His conversation with them speaks to his heart and mind giving him the courage to act for the good of the people who desire freedom, justice, and independence so intensely.
Hence, Operation Dynamo takes effect. Never in all of history has there been such a rescue of troops by civilians than what happened at Dunkirk. Christopher Nolan’s recent film, Dunkirk, on that very rescue tells of its scope and drama. Yet, in Darkest Hour the view is from the Prime Minister’s chair and the man who knows all the suffering and sacrifice it will take to save Britain from utter destruction and servitude to Hitler.
The film adds some sweet moments such as when Churchill takes his young secretary, Miss Layton (Lily James), into the war room where he shows her a map of Dunkirk and the surrounding German advance. Her brother, we later learn, was killed in war and her sadness at the thought of losing all of Britain’s young soldiers touched Churchill deeply, giving him impetus to never give up.
Sometimes in order to grow in courage, we need to see the stories of people who faced the impossible and never gave up, never gave in, and never surrendered. Winston Churchill, I am sure, was not the easiest person to deal with, yet the great ones of history are usually not meek and shy characters. They are people who follow the maxim of the greater good, even to the point of self-sacrifice. Churchill surrendered his life, his family, and his career to doing the greater good when no one else saw the possibility. This courageous politician perhaps changed the entire course of history singlehandedly. If that’s not courage, I don’t know what is. Sometimes it only takes one person to see the vision and to pursue it tenaciously. Churchill did that and freedom remains today because of his courage. Darkest Hour offers a dramatic reflection on how sometimes the greatest human acts come from the pain of the darkest struggle.