In an odd coincidence, there were two movies about Dunkirk this year. The one with the place as a title was an up close look at the battle. Darkest Hour, directed by Joe Wright, is at the other end of the conflict, the politicians bickering. It would make an interesting double feature. For what it’s worth, this is the second time Wright has featured Dunkirk in one of his movies, the other being Atonement.
But this film is all about Winston Churchill. One of the most important figures of the 20th century, Darkest Hour covers one month in his life, May 1940. The Germans have conquered Poland, Czechoslovakia, Denmark, Holland, and Belgium. The entire British Army has their backs against the English Channel, surrounded by Germans. They do not have sufficient air power.
Prime Minister Neville “Peace in our time” Chamberlain resigns, as he is thought to be too weak to be a war-time leader. Lord Halifax turns the job down, a decision that certainly changed world history. The compromise candidate is Churchill, though many think he lacks sound judgment (the disaster at Gallipoli during World War I is mentioned frequently), and that he drinks too much. In fact, he may have been a high-functioning alcoholic.
But he was brilliant, and he was pugnacious. The film centers on Churchill’s desire to fight back, while Halifax and Chamberlain want to negotiate with Hitler, with Mussolini as a mediator. Churchill says, “You can’t negotiate with a tiger while your head is in its mouth.” The king, (Ben Mendelsohn, a less dashing but perhaps more accurate George VI than Colin Firth) doesn’t care for him. Only days after becoming Prime Minister some are maneuvering to have him removed. But he won’t back down, and his oratory is his best weapon.
Darkest Hour is a lot of talk, and some heavy English accents (I could have used subtitles). And it’s a love letter to Churchill, making his flaws endearing and showing him to be completely right, of course in retrospective. There are many conferences and arguments in the corridors of Parliament with barbed comments thrown about, which is always fun. I loved the scene in which Churchill, hiding in the W.C., calls Franklin Roosevelt for help, but FDR can’t help him because of neutrality acts. He can’t even send him the planes that England has already bought (“But we bought them with the money you loaned us!” Churchill complains).
I liked Darkest Hour okay mainly because of Gary Oldman as Churchill (the likely Oscar winner). He isn’t the first person to come to mind to play the roly-poly man, who admits that all babies look like him. Oldman wears a considerable amount of makeup, but he is magnificent in capturing the complexity of the man, particularly during the famous speeches: “Blood, toil, tears, and sweat,” and “We will fight them on the beaches…”
The rest of the cast is good, although Kristin Scott Thomas doesn’t have much to do as Lady Churchill, except hector Winston about his lavish lifestyle and being mean to his secretary (played by Lily James).
What is disappointing about the film is that it creates a scene near the end that did not happen, and seems more like one of Churchill’s fantasies that reality. It tries to show Churchill as a man of the people, and I’m not sure he counted that as one of his finer qualities.