Operation Dynamo was the code name for the evacuation of Allied soldiers during World War II from the beaches and harbour of Dunkirk in France. More than 300,000 soldiers were rescued by a fleet of civilian boats. Recently, two films have been made about that event—Dunkirk by Christopher Nolan and Darkest Hour by Joe Wright. It’s fascinating how the same story can be retold from radically different perspectives. When I saw Dunkirk, I was struck by how expendable people were. How easily a soldier’s life could be snuffed out. How many thousands of soldiers became anonymous casualties of war, each person, with his face clotted in blood and dirt, indistinguishable from the next.
And then I saw Darkest Hour, about the man who gave the green signal for the mission. The film tells the story of Winston Churchill in the first month after he took charge as the British prime minister, and how he navigated the nation through what might have been a disaster of unprecedented proportions. In the film, all those soldiers’ lives are small blue pins in a giant map of Dunkirk, and he’s the strategist who has to devise a way to get them out of the map.
What Churchill goes through is pain of a different kind from the soldiers—the tyranny of choice. The war cabinet is divided over what to do, with Viscount Halifax and Neville Chamberlain advocating for holding peace negotiations with Italy and Churchill angling for war. What he goes through is brought out brilliantly by Gary Oldman in an Oscar-worthy performance.
Oldman brings out the various shades of Churchill—the bumbling eccentric who walks out of the bathroom naked, the tortured prime minister who’s not sure what to do, and the brilliant speaker confidently reeling off his famous ‘We will fight on the beaches’ speech to thunderous applause. The triumph of the film is that it not just portrays the externalities of what Churchill did to bring about Operation Dynamo. It projects the internalities of his mind as he transformed himself into the leader his nation needed.
The fact that Wright, the director, zooms in on one month of his protagonist’s life means that every event in that one month has been magnified, which leads to a slight sag in the plot somewhere midway. But it picks up steam soon enough, when Churchill gets back his panache.
The film has been shot brilliantly, using shades of light to complement the mood of each scene, whether it is one of the prime minister striding through narrow corridors, sitting enshrouded in shadows when his wife switches on the light, or talking with the commoners in the subway. Churchill’s magnetic persona and witty repartees would have been enough to keep you hooked for two hours. But when that is brought out by someone as talented as Oldman, you’re not just engrossed; you’re gripped.
Film: Darkest Hour
Director: Joe Wright
Cast: Gary Oldman, Lily James, Kristin Scott Thomas