The old dodgy “fool” who no one wanted. A tottering face of antiquity in a bustling modern world at war. There are reams of background information required to fully appreciate Darkest Hour, to fully appreciate Winston Churchill (Gary Oldman). A man who very much lived outside the confines of statues and pound notes, though, may be not on the outside of his own pounds too.
Darkest Hour opens with an overhead shot of parliament showing more spine than the meek muffle mouthed Neville Chamberlain (Ronald Pickup) ever showed against Adolph Hitler, by outing Chamberlain from office. Hindsight 20/20, Hitler might have been a bad chap, cheated at poker too from what I hear. No hindsight needed, Chamberlain was delusional. Inexplicably, upon Chamberlain’s resignation, when given the fat chance to replace him as Prime Minster, Viceroy Halifax (Stephen Dillane) declines. The insipid reason for declining is because of “rank” and “deference,” avid watchers of The Crown will shudder at those syllables. American audiences will most likely need an upper-crust guide book on all the asinine class issues in this film.
Speaking of asinine class issues, here enters Churchill. Oldman as the ‘bulldog’ is spectacular. He doesn’t try to create a perfect reflection of the PM. His performance is more of an homage, capturing the mumbled breathless and witty prose, with the feverish temper, weight, and age. Originally the prosthetics for Oldman offered greater realism, director Joe Wright decided to do away with them. He was correct. Rather than giving a facially cumbersome performance, Oldman is at once himself and Churchill. It feels less like overt acting. Instead, Oldman exudes the intellectual rabble rousing, the sharp wit, and the joy in oration that made Churchill synonymous with leadership.
He’s supported by Elizabeth (Lily James), a sharp secretary who’s meant to help the audience break through the glib austerity of Churchill. We also have his wife Clementine (Kristin Scott Thomas), there to give perpetual pep talks to the shattered confidence of her husband. We don’t find out much about the women in Churchill’s life, though they are both highly capable and intelligent. We only know that both women take a back seat to him, maybe that’s as it “should” be considering his place in history, or maybe there should have been more exposition. In any case, you know what they say about women and exposition, it’s an imposition (that was meant to be as bad as it sounded). Lastly, the cast is rounded out by King George (Ben Mendelsohn), a monarch who looks to be done with the bullshit and is waiting for languid insanity to end his misery. His character very much carries the same traits seen in The King’s Speech and The Crown.
You could probably combine Darkest Hour, The King’s Speech, and Dunkirk into a nice trilogy, add in The Crown and The Queen for the shiggles. Make a day’s watch of them into pre-travel research. While Dunkirk features none of Churchill, Darkest Hour sees the events of the almost total and near disaster from England’s shores. Much of the country is seen from gliding shots as Churchill passes through the streets, isolated and looking longingly from his private car. The tracking shots reveal a thriving country, almost unassuming of war. England demonstrates defiance by living, by carrying on as if nothing is wrong.
However, the real journey of Darkest Hour is to demonstrate the many ways Churchill fights against Chamberlain and Halifax, the turning tide of war, the collapse of Europe, and himself. In the 1940’s, Churchill was trying to regain his reputation. He had ordered a disastrous attack in Gallipoli, costing nearly 200k lives during the Great War. He was never totally forgiven for that mistake, at least not until after WWII, when his war time accomplishments fully restored him. However, at the beginning of WWII, Britain was an isolated island, a once mighty empire already on the downturn partly because of Churchill’s past actions. In short, he didn’t want to foul it up.
Darkest Hour demonstrates the immense courage Churchill had. It doesn’t fully absolve and deify him, rather humanizes. Today, he’s more bedtime story, which you probably have pretty shitty parents if they’re telling you Churchill bedtime stories, than actual man. The film shows him at his most troubled and possibly greatest moment, preparing a nation and empire for a long road ahead. Most of all, it celebrates him for doing the right thing, the hard act, in the right moment, not surrendering to the Nazis, fighting it out, and leading. One might argue that Churchill was the last time Britain had its swagger, but one would never argue that against all the odds, a country and a man showed resolve and held firm, even when all seemed lost.
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Photo Credit: Slashfilm