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Darkest Hour

 It's Always Darkest Before the Dawn 

Gary Oldman
Gary Oldman
Focus Features
 125 Minutes
Directed byJoe Wright
Starring: Gary Oldman, Kristin Scott Thomas 
Darkest Hour

It has to be among the oddest of coincidences that after many years during which the British evacuation at Dunkirk during World War II was largely overlooked in terms of cinematic portrayals, in 2017 two major films examine the event from completely different and virtually perfectly complementary perspectives. This summer, Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk gave viewers a feel for the battle itself as it was waged, and now, Joe Wright’s Darkest Hour pulls the camera back to England and shows the political storm that surrounded the military events, most particularly how one man, Winston Churchill, assumed a position of power under the most trying of circumstances and helped ensure the very survival of his nation.


Although Great Britain and France had been at war with Germany for months, the Western front was relatively peaceful until May 10, 1940, when the Germans launched a massive invasion that caught the Allies unprepared and led to the fall of France only six weeks later. Ironically, on the very day that Germany attacked, Winston Churchill became Prime Minister, replacing his own Conservative Party’s Neville Chamberlain, whose conduct of the war had been harshly criticized by the opposition parties. Churchill carried considerable political baggage when he assumed office resulting from the disastrous World War I Gallipoli campaign that he championed, the failure of which severely damaged his political career in the intervening years.


It is against this backdrop that Darkest Hour takes place. As Churchill (Gary Oldman) assumes office, he has only tepid support from Chamberlain (Ronald Pickup), still ostensibly the head of the Conservative Party, and Viscount Halifax (Stephen Dillane), who had already declined the office of Prime Minister and suggested Churchill for the job instead. Further, the King (Ben Mendelsohn) is not overly enamored of Churchill either, and his only support seems to be from the opposition parties and his wife Clementine (Kristin Scott Thomas).


As the month of May progresses, news from the battlefront gets much worse, and soon the British forces are trapped on the coast at Dunkirk. Chamberlain and Halifax suggest sending out peace feelers to Hitler, looking to negotiate some sort of terms with the Nazi leader. They feel that the alternative would be the loss of the entire country. And, even though Churchill at first angrily rebuffs them (“you cannot reason with a tiger when your head is in its mouth”) but then, beset by doubt as the war news gets worse, allows Halifax to put out initial feelers.


Of course, in movies based on well-known historical events, screenwriters and directors always face a bit of a problem in sustaining drama or building suspense when the audience knows going in what is going to happen. The British did not enter into peace talks with Germany. The army was rescued at Dunkirk. England was not invaded, and the Allies won the war. So what provides the drama in Darkest Hour is not wondering whether Churchill will make the right decision but seeing how close he came to making the wrong one and what led him to do the right thing.


In that regard, Joe Wright and screenwriter Anthony McCarten make the unfortunate decision to mix fact with fantasy in order to attempt to magnify what was already a historically intense personal decision by Churchill and offer a facile explanation for his actions. While, in real life, Halifax and Chamberlain attempted to persuade Churchill to negotiate with Hitler, their movie counterparts turn this moment into the beginnings of an attempted coup d’etat, with the two planning a vote of no confidence if Churchill refuses. This only serves to make the historically complicated Halifax into a rather convenient villain (who, one must remember, could have been prime minister in the first place but declined).


An even more egregious error occurs when the fictional Churchill chooses to ride the subway in an effort to gauge popular opinion on whether to sue for peace. Not only was the real Churchill rather disdainful of the opinion of the masses at times, but this plot device deprives him of a bit of what was unquestionably his greatest strength, his backbone. Instead, he is reduced to a more serious version of Babe Ruth promising to hit a home run for the child in the hospital. These rather serious stumbles don’t make Darkest Hour any less enjoyable for those unfamiliar with history, but Wright and McCarten go for cheap applause rather than a more complex analysis of Churchill’s decision making.


What the movie does get right is showing what made Churchill a great wartime leader, namely the powerful oratory and showmanship he often put on display. Darkest Hour shows Churchill flashing the “V for victory” sign on several occasions, even when his heart wasn’t into it, for public consumption. But the real strength of the film is in Gary Oldman’s masterful delivery of Churchill’s famous speeches. These speeches helped win over enough support in Parliament for Churchill to overcome the opposition to his strategy. McCarten wisely allows Oldman to deliver lengthy excerpts from these exact speeches, including the defiant “we shall never surrender.”  As the film’s Halifax puts it, “He mobilized the English language and sent it into battle.”


Oldman captures all of Churchill’s eccentricities perfectly, and, in one of the film’s few good uses of fictionalization, gives him a convenient sounding board, his secretary (Lily James), opposite whom he bellows and pontificates on various occasions. Her character may be fictional but she helps create a more three-dimensional Churchill. By contrast, Kristin Scott Thomas has few scenes with Oldman and less of an overall impact on the movie.


One other supporting performance is worth noting. Ben Mendelsohn plays a surprisingly wise George VI, keenly aware of the importance of his position and a surprisingly good judge of character. Again, I’m not too familiar with how realistic this portrayal is, but Mendelsohn, who so often plays weak characters and villains, is quite effective here.


Darkest Hour provides the audience with a great example of Gary Oldman at his best and a good look at what made Winston Churchill a highly effective wartime leader. But, for the most part, the further the film strays from the man himself, the less focused it becomes, down to a subway scene that seems cribbed from a rally-the-troops inspiration piece. The definitive cinematic look at the psychology of Churchill has yet to be told, but Darkest Hour may well provide the definitive cinematic look of Churchill.  

In this clip, Gary Oldman argues with Stephen Dillane about whether to try to negotiate with Hitler.

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Darkest Hour (2017) on IMDb