It’s always darkest before the dawn.
And in England in May 1940, it sure was dark. The Nazis were poised to invade, and there seemed to be no viable solution other than surrender.
DARKEST HOUR (2017) chronicles Winston Churchill’s first few tumultuous days as England’s Prime Minister during this frightening time.
It’s the early days of World War II, and Hitler’s Nazi machine is stomping through Europe, and nations are falling like dominoes. The British leadership expresses zero confidence in Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain (Ronald Pickup) whose peace policies allowed Hitler to get this far undeterred. When Chamberlain is forced to resign, Winston Churchill (Gary Oldman) is selected as his successor.
It’s a controversial choice as Churchill is not well-liked and is viewed with skepticism. He’s known to speak his mind, drinks daily, smokes a cigar, and is marred by his own controversial decision during World War I at Gallipoli which led to the deaths of thousands of troops. But he’s chosen for political purposes, as he’s the only candidate the opposition party would accept, or as he himself surmises, perhaps it’s his enemies’ way of getting back at him, putting him in power just as the nation is about to fall.
Churchill is under tremendous pressure. He views fighting back against Hitler as the only solution, and refuses to negotiate, but this position leaves him alone politically. Both Neville Chamberlain and Viscount Halifax (Stephen Dillane), the man who many believe should be prime minister, view surrender and a negotiated peace as the only hope for their nation, and they have the support of not only their party but of King George VI (Ben Mendelsohn) who admits that he finds Churchill rather “scary.”
And with the entire British army trapped at Dunkirk, with no reasonable way to escape, it appears they are correct, and that Churchill has no other option than to surrender to Hitler. But as we know, this is not what happened. Churchill ordered a civilian fleet of small ships to mobilize and rescue the soldiers, something that was so outlandish it almost wasn’t done, but it was done, and nearly every British soldier was saved that day.
How Churchill withstood the massive political pressure to give in and how he somehow managed to get England to fight back is the incredible story told in DARKEST HOUR. And it’s one of those stories where if it wasn’t true, you probably wouldn’t believe it.
The main reason to see DARKEST HOUR is Gary Oldman’s phenomenal performance as Winston Churchill. It’s as good as advertised.
Sure, the make-up department outdoes itself by transforming Oldman into the portly aged Churchill, but Oldman’s performance goes way beyond make-up. He captures not only Churchill’s eccentric personality and signature gait, but the unbelievable stress and pressure on the man, Oldman makes palpable. He’s so effective that I found myself getting stressed out, just thinking about what Churchill was going through.
He so much wanted to fight, knowing that surrender would mean the nation would be at the mercy of a monster, Hitler, and yet, his position was seen by those in power as irresponsible. He was seen as a warmonger, someone who would get lots of people killed, when surrender would be a better option that would save lives. And militarily his hands were tied. When he tries to rally the French, he learns that they’ve already been beaten. His own army, the entire army, is trapped without hope of escape at Dunkirk.
Oldman captures all of this emotion and completely brings Winston Churchill to life.
And of course, working behind make-up is nothing new for Oldman, who has made a living looking different in most of the movies he has appeared in over the years.
The rest of the film is a bit uneven. While it’s certainly interesting, it doesn’t reach out and grab you until its final emotional reel. Unlike Oldman, who’s locked in from the get-go, the rest of the film takes a while to get going.
For three-fourths of this movie, things are dark, dreary, and depressing, and it’s not until late in the film when the clouds of doom begin to lift. There are several key scenes which effectively highlight the changing tide. When King George realizes that he actually admires Churchill’s tenacity, and in a private meeting, when he whispers to Churchill that he has had a change of heart, that now “you have my support,” it’s one of the most satisfying rousing emotional moments in the movie.
The private conversation between Churchill and his wife Clemmie (Kristin Scott Thomas), where she tells him that it’s because of his flaws and his experience dealing with them that’s he ready and able to deal with this impossible situation now is equally as powerful, as is the moment when Churchill learns that his young secretary Elizabeth Layton’s (Lily James) brother has died at Dunkirk, and he marvels at the bravery in her face when she tells him.
And my favorite scene in the film is where Churchill decides to ride the subway and talk to the people, gauging their thoughts and feelings about what to do about the inevitable Nazi invasion. And of course they tell him in no uncertain terms that they want to fight.
It’s moments like these where the script by Anthony McCarten comes alive. Earlier though, the story is much more low-key as it details the politics of Churchill’s appointment as Prime Minister. And that’s what DARKEST HOUR is mostly about, the politics of the time. The story of how Churchill would go on to lead England to victory is not told here. This is the story of the days leading up to the time when Churchill would become that leader. These political scenes never resonated as well with me as the more emotional moments later in the film.
This is the third film to come out in 2017 to deal with the battle of Dunkirk. There was Christopher Nolan’s DUNKIRK, which happened to be my favorite film of 2017, and the comedy drama THEIR FINEST, which told the lighthearted story of the making of a propaganda film about Dunkirk to help encourage the United States to join the war effort. Of these three films, DARKEST HOUR is probably the least emotionally satisfying.
Director Joe Wright captures the look of World War II England brilliantly. The cars, the costumes, the sets, all bring this moment of history to life. In terms of an entire captivating package, however, as I’ve said, it takes a while to get going.
Oldman is helped by a solid cast. I particularly enjoyed the two female performances here. Kristin Scott Thomas is excellent as Churchill’s wife Clemmie. It’s Clemmie who’s constantly pushing her husband along, encouraging him when he’s consumed with self-doubt, and while at times it’s difficult to imagine her in love with such a cantankerous character like Churchill, the love they have for each other comes through loud and clear.
I liked Lily James just as much as Churchill’s very young secretary, Elizabeth Layton. She seems to latch onto Churchill as a father or even grandfather figure, and she too constantly encourages him to continue to lead.
Stephen Dillane is particularly convincing as Viscount Halifax, seen here as the biggest thorn in Churchill’s side. He’s the man who most in England wanted to be the new prime minister, and he knows it and wields his power accordingly. He’s also the biggest proponent of peace talks, and it’s interesting because his take here is one that I think most rational people would agree with, while most would indeed view Churchill as a loose cannon. It’s easy for us today to sympathize with Churchill because we know how cruel and crazy Hitler was, but back in 1940 the world didn’t know this. Halifax is also on the receiving end of Churchill’s memorable line in the movie, “Would you stop interrupting me when I’m interrupting you!!!”
Likewise, Ronald Pickup makes for a weary and worn Neville Chamberlain. And Ben Mendelsohn, who STAR WARS fans saw last year as the villainous Orson Krennic in ROGUE ONE: A STAR WARS STORY (2016), is superb as King George VI. He’s one of the few characters to change during the movie, at first seeing Churchill as a poor excuse for a leader, but later viewing the Prime Minister in a new light, when his own feelings of anger towards Hitler surface, and he suddenly wants a leader who’s willing to fight for his nation.
DARKEST HOUR is exactly what its title says it is: the darkest hour for all of Europe. It was a moment in history when the face of Europe was about to change, when a dictator was on the verge of conquering it all, and when the odds against this happening seemed so slim that the entire United Kingdom stood ready to surrender it all. And yet, that’s not what happened, due in large part to the leadership and decisions of one man, Winston Churchill.
DARKEST HOUR tells the story of how that man survived his darkest hour to emerge as that rallying leader.
And Gary Oldman, through a remarkable performance, brings this unlikely savior to life.