Joe Wright's Churchill-finds-his-mojo drama Darkest Hour is an epic of loin girding, a rousing wiki-deep summary of the gist of Winston Churchill's first month in power as prime minister, building to his delivery of the second most famous to-arms speech in British history. Wright's film is fleet, wholly convincing in its production design, and in one crucial sense something rare: Here's a war movie about rhetoric rather than battle scenes.
"He's mobilized the English language," a rival of Churchill's mutters, in awe, after one of the prime minister's climactic speeches. To drive the point home, Wright (Atonement, Pan and the 2012 Anna Karenina) shows us the hangdog visage of another rival, played by Stephen Dillane, who looks as if the director, who has no fear of overstating the obvious, has told him a sad trombone bleat will score the shot.
The idea that powers Wright's film is that declaring the will to fight is itself a fight. We meet Churchill in May 1940, when the Nazis have stormed Europe right up to France, and outgoing prime minister Neville Chamberlain (Ronald Pickup) still is insisting that Britain's best chance to avoid invasion is a peace deal with Hitler. Churchill, of course, vows to fight.
Wright is adept at immersing us in place, snaking his camera through this lavish re-creation of a secret London command center. And in his lead Gary Oldman, he has an actor he can trust with both the biggest and smallest moments. The last lion roars, when appropriate, but this is a human Churchill. Too bad the sequence of Churchill quizzing everyday Londoners on whether Britain should fight plays hammier than a Midwestern grocery store's party platter.