Darkest Hour

darkest_hour_ver3STARS3I always watch historical dramas with a skeptical eye. Especially in dramatizing events in which few individuals were present. I like to ask, “Did this really happen?” “What is the filmmaker’s point of view?” “Where am I being led?” In that vein, there’s a moment in Darkest Hour when I realized I was watching a work of pure fiction. Winston Churchill (Gary Oldman) purposefully takes the London subway, known as the Underground, in order to commune with the people. The good multitude are positively beaming with humanity.  On his trip to Westminster, he has a magnificently fanciful discussion in which he summons an informal poll of the commuters and concludes what he must do.  With forceful determination, they tell him to “Fight On!” in no uncertain terms. “Never surrender!” they all say. Churchill begins to recite the poem, “Horatius” by Thomas Babington Macaulay.  A spirited black passenger completes the quotation flawlessly. Winston extends a hand to the young man, with tears streaming down his cheeks. He gathers all of their counsel and acts accordingly. It’s a completely fabricated piece of hokum, but darn it all, this bit of hogwash sure feels cinematic.  This is the very definition of artistic license. I fully expect to see the clip on Oscar night.

In Darkest Hour, Director Joe Wright (Atonement) has wisely limited his focus to a single month in the early days of WWII. This includes the decisions leading up to the evacuation of soldiers stranded at the coastal town of Dunkirk. This would make a nice companion piece to Christopher Nolan’s movie that came out earlier in the year. That story didn’t feature Churchill or even the Nazis for that matter.  In contrast, this production is completely fashioned around the Prime Minister. A title card informs us that Hitler has invaded Czechoslovakia, Poland, Denmark, and Norway.  It’s now May 1940 and Neville Chamberlain (Ronald Pickup) is being ousted as Prime Minister, leaving Winston Churchill to step up, He must now defend Britain against the onslaught of Adolf Hitler’s takeover of Europe. Churchill is presented as a rabble-rousing firebrand that united the Nation. His speeches and radio broadcasts helped inspire British resistance where they apparently stood alone in active opposition to a madman.

His refusal to negotiate for peace is not without struggle, however. There’s the aforementioned Neville Chamberlain and also Foreign Secretary Lord Halifax, (Stephane Dillane), neither of which are given sympathetic portrayals. Chamberlain seems incapacitated. Halifax is contentious. Even King George VI distrusts him initially. The King may be quiet but he’s composed. Side note: Is this the same man whose exaggerated stutter was emphasized in The King’s Speech? A far more measured portrait of the man is given here. Anyway, decision weighs upon Churchill’s mind, “Should Britain enter the war and risk the lives of thousands or submit to the peace terms dictated by Adolf Hitler, a psychopath drunk with power?” This is the film’s driving focus.  “You cannot reason with a tiger when your head is in its mouth!” Churchill hollers defiantly. He screams a lot here in declarations that wouldn’t be out of place in an NFL locker room.

Darkest Hour lionizes Churchill as the great orator that stood up to a lunatic in a dark period of England’s history. That is the predictable angle. Churchill is one of the most revered figures of the 20th century. This is a prestigious British biopic perfectly constructed as a vehicle for Gary Oldman to win an Oscar. He is more than up to the task. Oldman is compellingly watchable, buried under pounds of prosthetics so the lean actor can embody the corpulent frame of the actual man. It’s a fascinating presentation of World War II in which everything takes place in the Parliamentary halls of discussion.  Winston incessantly drinks booze, smokes cigars and occasionally sets aside time to confer with his wife Clementine (Kristin Scott Thomas) and his secretary Elizabeth (Lily James).

Winston Churchill’s powerful fortitude is highlighted to glorious effect. Darkest Hour is a glowing display of a man that assumes the role of a saint even when he lies to the British populace about how well the war effort is going. He misrepresents the facts in a radio address to bolster the morale of the British people.  FDR doesn’t come off as well. He is fleetingly referenced in a disheartening phone call where Winston asks for help and FDR can barely offer any assistance at all. The production is a glowing characterization that incorporates things that Winston did and didn’t say. It’s pretty easy for a 2017 audience to now concede that the courage to resist the Nazis was the right thing to do. It also helps that the Allies won the war, but back in 1940, it wasn’t so clear Hitler would lose. This is, as expected, a one-sided exhibition of historical fiction – a flattering representation of the leader of the Conservative Party whose strength of resolve led a country to victory.  The antagonism Churchill faced is depicted as sorely misguided folks at who we can only shake our heads. Hindsight is 20/20.


21 Responses to “Darkest Hour”

  1. smilingldsgirl Says:

    Thanks for the review. I’m excited to see it


  2. Pretty good movie. Very talky. I think Gary Oldman is in every scene. He is unrecognizable here and does a perfect accent. I loved that scene in the train, it was a little cheesy but still good. 3 stars and 1 Oscar.


  3. A case of the hagiographic being a bit too much,then? Three stars is good but I get the sense you were quite let down by this.


    • It’s just exactly what I expected. Winston Churchill is one of the most idealized figures of the 20th century. This movie furthers that notion. I simply ask, do we need yet another glorification of Winston Churchill?

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Fine review. I’m anxious to see this although who knows when it will be. Release schedules drive me nuts this time of year.


  5. Martin1250 Says:

    nice review Mark. It would be nice to see Gary Oldman get an Oscar. he has been in so many movies and it seems that he always delivers a memorable performance.


  6. Your prose seems a bit more positive than the 3 stars you gave the movie. I would’ve been more negative.

    Who decided to impose that stilted acting style on the players? for example. They all act like zombies — except for Churchill, who IS allowed to have some life in him, but he’s halfway to senility judged by the pronouncements he comes out with. Whatever you think of the guy and what he did, he deserved a better portrayal than this.

    Or the script. What could be more boring than sitting in on one political meeting after another? Worse though is that it doesn’t impart any understanding of what’s going on but spoon-feeds us the “once more unto the breach” view that’s become the standard one for that time and place. Things were just as complicated then as they are now, and keeping your country OUT of war made just as much sense. Plus which a lot of the decisions Churchill and other big shots took seem pretty dumb in retrospect. This was an opportunity to be a bit more subtle than those wartime films that had the prime minister thumb his nose at Hitler and raise the jolly roger.


    • I thought to call it “a work of pure fiction” was pretty damning – particularly when describing a biography. No, it’s not subtle. This is pure Oscar bait. Nevertheless, I was entertained enough by the production to give it 3 stars.


  7. This is that movie this year for me. Great performance(s) worthy of winning a ton of awards and recommended viewing, but do they really add all that much to the equation? Past movies in recent memory like this for me are The Theory of Everything, The Imitation Game, and Jackie.

    But I’m happy for Oldman!


  8. The Cinematic Explorer Says:

    I just happened to stumble across your blog; you have an awesome way with words. Totally agree about Oldman gagging for an Oscar, it’s almost as though the film was made for that very purpose.


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