I was a history major in college, and, specifically, I focused on European History, but I’ll confess I don’t know or remember much about Winston Churchill other than what is common knowledge. He shepherded England (and some would argue Europe) through the Second World War. He was a voluminous writer and rhetorician. His wit was legendary and his speeches quotable to this day. He wore a bowler-type hat, a watch and chain across his midsection, which was considerable in its girth, and drank and smoked cigars prodigiously.
Admitting my ignorance does not mean I put stock in Hollywood to tell the story of Churchill in the crucial days of 1940–when he had to decide whether to surrender or fight it out with Hitler—accurately. As they might say in the British Parliament, I give a vote of ‘no confidence’ when it comes to Hollywood and history. That is my general attitude when approaching a biopic, about whose subject or figure I know little.
By all rights, in the Darkest Hour, the filmmakers achieve Churchill’s look and habits correctly, but facts-wise it certainly felt like there were some whoppers in the poetic license department. I’ll leave it to the internet (God help me) to sort out if Churchill, conflicted about suing for peace with or waging continued war against Germany, actually rode the London underground alone and was convinced by a car full of commoners that he should “never” give in.
Situations like those aside, there is much to like about Darkest Hour. I don’t gamble, but you can take it to the bank Gary Oldman will get an Oscar nomination for his portrayal of Churchill, as will the film overall in several categories.
I was unmoved at first because the filmmakers introduce us to a Churchill who is cartoonish. He’s grumpy, fussy, churlish: he’s C. Montgomery Burns. I think the attempt is to give us a glimpse of the man not just the legend, but it doesn’t quite strike the right balance at the outset.
Daniel Day Lewis’s Lincoln had peccadillos and odd mannerisms, but in Lincoln it never felt like those competed with the man and the moment. Darkest Hour walks closer to the edge of reducing the man and what he had to deal with by way of highlighting some of his oddities. Yet, just when one thinks the movie has gone too far toward caricaturing Churchill, it snaps back to the action and the viewer empathizes with his humanity—not just chuckles at his habit of mumbling.
Along the lines of improper balance, all the secondary characters in Darkest Hour give the impression of being just a shade off. There is his family and his typist and some aides who offer a soupcon this will be an upstairs/downstairs type of drama, but it never really materializes. The most interesting secondary figure was the King of England. It was a different look at the man portrayed in The King’s Speech. In Darkest Hour, the King’s struggle has not to do with his addresses to the nation but whether or not to back Churchill. At first, the King is goaded into standing against Churchill, but as he comes to know the Prime Minister and himself reflects on fighting or fleeing, he shifts to Churchill’s corner. This turnabout is the most authentic of all the smaller plot threads.
Another thing Darkest Hour does well is to provide a gripping drama when the outcome is already known. We know who won the Second World War, and we know England chose to fight rather than capitulate. Coming on the heels of this summer’s Dunkirk, Darkest Hour (in which the Dunkirk evacuation figures prominently) manages to get inside the event smartly, and viewers will feel the indecision and hesitation of the moment. It might help that a lot of the behind the scenes minutiae is the terrain only of scholars, but even so, Darkest Hour effectively channels the day-to-day uncertainties England’s political leaders and its public faced in May of 1940.
Darkest Hour also does well to give us only this small slice of Churchill’s life. In his career, there were many ups and downs and notable moments, but Darkest Hour wisely avoids the trap into which The Iron Lady, a movie about the 1980s British Primie Minister Margaret Thatcher starring Meryl Streep, fell. The Iron Lady is a back and forth movie about the entirety of Thatcher’s life, in which the focus is everything and nothing. Darkest Hour succeeds in allowing us to understand what made Churchill Churchill without preambles or flashbacks (though there are a few clunky, book report moments), and whereas in The Iron Lady, Thatcher felt like an object of scorn and pity to the filmmakers, in Darkest Hour, one gets the impression the producers truly admire and like their subject.
Darkest Hour’s pallet eponymously matches its title: there was nary a ray of sunlight in the entire film. Maybe it’s a bit too obvious, but who could be otherwise but gloomy in England in May of 1940? And despite all the terrible events chronicled, all the political back fighting and personal ambition on display–when men’s guts were being spilled– Darkest Hour is a movie worth seeing as the holiday and Oscar seasons are upon us. And depending upon your faith (Churchillian or otherwise) in the rightness of some things, you might get a decent history lesson out of the experience.
Directed by: Joe Wright
Cast: Gary Oldman, Kristin Scott Thomas, Lily James, Stephen Dillane, Ronald Pickup, and Ben Mendelsohn
Running Time: 125 minutes