I grew up in a very British household. And by British, I mean wholly monarchist, Rule Britannia, and pro-Churchill – the whole shebang. As an adult, I have learned to question things. While I’m not going to state my personal political predilections in full, I’m definitely not as credulous as once I was. But I still have a soft spot in my heart for Churchill. To be specific, for World War II Churchill. I fully realize that he was a racist, a misogynist, and, at times, a very poor tactician (Gallipoli?). But if one subscribes to the “Great Man Theory” of history, there are few better candidates in the Twentieth Century than the British bulldog himself. Regardless of your personal feelings toward Winston Churchill, however, Gary Oldman’s turn in Darkest Hour is clearly one of the great acting moments of the Twenty-First Century. If he doesn’t win the Oscar come March, it will be a theft of the highest order.
[SPOILER ALERT: Click through below the jump to read my review of Darkest Hour. The events portrayed in the film are historic record, but may not be familiar to you – click through and be warned!]
Darkest Hour focuses on a very narrow time frame, from Churchill’s ascension to power on May 10, 1940 (the date that Germany invaded Belgium, Holland, Luxembourg, and France), and follows through until his famous “Never Surrender” speech on June 4, 1940, less than a month later. Given this narrow time frame, writer Anthony McCarten and director Joe Wright try to give us a couple of different perspectives on this key month in the survival of the Western democracies against the Nazi threat. A new secretary to Churchill, Elizabeth Layton [Lily James] acts as a common cipher for the audience to get insight into the day-to-day reality of the Churchillian world – the fact that she ends up in tears shortly after meeting him tells us a lot about his character.
A tempering factor is his wife, Clemmie, played masterfully by Kristin Scott Thomas. The interactions between Oldman’s Winston and her Clemmie are a lesson in long-suffering love, but are also resonant of a very real respect that the two developed over their several decades together.
The politics, however, are the real driving force through the latter two thirds of the film, from his rather fraught relationship with King George VI [Ben Mendelsohn], to the back-stabbing of the outgoing Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain [Ronald Pickup] and his lapdog/PM-in-waiting Lord Halifax [Stephen Dillane]. The movie adheres closely to historical fact, but the scenes set in the underground War Rooms (which, by the way, are now a museum that you can visit your next time in London) are tense, nerve-wracking, and an excellent reflection of the competing voices that were being heard there during the dark days of the invasion of France and the near disaster of Dunkirk – Operation Dynamo is portrayed here as a last-ditch desperate move instigated by Churchill in the face of open rebellion from his cabinet.
There is one scene that occurs right around the end of the second act, where Churchill, due to traffic and the suggestion that he “listen to the people,” decides to take a shortcut via the tube (subway for us colonials), and in so doing, gets a feel for the pulse of the public. This scene is not even apocryphal – there’s no indication that it took place historically at all, and in fact would geographically not work as the Westminster stop is three minutes away from where he leaves his vehicle – but it is there in order for Wright to tell us one important fact: despite the very real debate in parliament around whether or not to seek peace terms via the Italians, the British people were of one mind: Never Surrender.
The movie is, in the end, a little uneven. James’s character’s raison d’être is never particularly clear, beyond the fact that Churchill is (in Clemmie’s words) rather beastly toward her, giving us a picture of the negative side of the political giant. The influence of Neville Chamberlain on the House of Commons is never really explored – they seem, largely, to be his creatures, despite his inability to govern. And Churchill himself is presented in a rather banal light – he’s shown as being lovable, a curmudgeon who doesn’t quite realize the effect he has on others, but who is ultimately a kind of father figure to the British people – despite his uneven military record and his clear racism/misogyny.
However, as a movie unto itself, Darkest Hour is worth watching if only for Gary Oldman’s masterful performance. This may be, in a career of high points, his highest point yet.
Steve’s Rating: (7.5 / 10)
While Darkest Hour can be uneven at times, and seems to do a bit of historical sugarcoating regarding Churchill, Gary Oldman’s turn as the Prime Minister is an astounding feat that makes the movie worth watching despite any misgivings you may have.
Director: Joe Wright
Writers: Anthony McCarten
Starring: Gary Oldman, Lily James, Kristin Scott Thomas
Release Date: December 22, 2017
Runtime: 2 hrs. 5 mins.
MPAA Rating: PG-13