In 1940, in Britain, Darkest Hour had an immediate resonance. The possibility of an invasion of Britain was more than possible. May was the month of Dunkirk. It preceded the Blitz. (Unfortunately, for the title of the film for a popular audience these days, it sounds more like a B-budget horror film.)
However, as with three other films during the past year, Their Finest, Churchill, Dunkirk, the audience is taken back to World War II, Britain in the 1940s. And one of the principal focus characters is Winston Churchill.
The action of this film, excellently written by Anthony McKernan, takes place, and a visual calendar indicates the passing of the days, in the latter part of May 1940. The parliament has lost confidence in Prime Minister, Neville Chamberlain, who was still associated with the allegations of appeasement prior to the outbreak of war, with leader of the opposition, Clement Atlee, denouncing him as unable to lead the nation in peacetime let alone in war. A coalition of parties for wartime government is suggested. Who will be prime minister? The conservatives do not like Winston Churchill at all. They prefer Halifax. The Labour Party prefers Churchill.
King George VI is a friend of Halifax and not a great supporter of Churchill but reluctantly agrees to the proposal. This film is very interesting in highlighting how Churchill was unpopular, especially with memories of loss of life at Gallipoli, his time in the political desert in the 20s and 30s, his staunch opposition to Hitler and warnings about imminent war.
The other feature of the film is to highlight how Churchill rose to the occasion given the invasions of Denmark, Norway, Belgium, the Netherlands and the defeat of France, the pushing back of the British troops to Dunkirk and Calais. Patriotic, even jingoistic, in his attitudes, Churchill is not keen on suing for peace, especially as promoted by Chamberlain and Halifax. In a scene, whether factual or not, Churchill goes to the Underground (and it is stated that he never travelled by bus and was only once in the Underground and got lost), talks to ordinary people, engages their opinion as to standing against Hitler and their opinion as to what they would do under any terms of peace that Hitler influenced.
This gives Churchill great confidence, bypasses his War Cabinet, goes into the parliament and makes his famous speech “… fight them on the beaches…” And wins the support of both sides of Parliament, including Chamberlain (who would die of cancer by the end of the year).
Many Britons consider Churchill is one of the greatest of all Britons – but this would date from his Darkest Hour experience and his decision to fight, survive, victory.
Many actors have portrayed Churchill and here is Gary Oldman, well-made up to look like Churchill, adopting his swagger, his oratory, quite an intense performance. Kristin Scott Thomas is Churchill’s wife, the always supportive but always critical, Clemmie. There is a very good supporting cast with Ronald Pickup as Chamberlain, Stephen Dillane as Halifax, Lily James as the secretary, Miss Layton, and, very surprisingly (who would have thought of casting him in this role), Ben Mendelssohn doing an effective job as George VI.
The screenplay is literate and intelligent. It contains a lot of Churchill’s own words – but the most telling comes when Halifax is asked what happened with Churchill’s landmark speech: “the English language has been mobilised and sent to war)!
A solid opportunity to go back into British World War II history.
Fr Peter Malone MSC is an associate of the Australian Catholic Office for Film & Broadcasting.
This British political film tells the story of Winston Churchill’s first days in office as Prime Minister of Britain at a time that was crucially important for his country. The film starts with scenes of Members of the British Parliament screaming for the resignation of Neville Chamberlain (Ronald Pickup). Parliament handed power to an unpredictable, Winston Churchill (Gary Oldman), who was notably absent from the screaming throng, some would say because of ambition.
Churchill was called to serve because the opposition would accept no other candidate, and within days of becoming Prime Minister he faced enormous conflict. He had to decide between pursuing a peace treaty with Nazi Germany, or taking a stand to uphold the ideals he knew were dear to the British nation. He had a Parliament to convince, as well as King George VI (Ben Mendelsohn) who was initially hostile to him, but moved later to support him. Both knew that the public had to be on Churchill’s side. The majority of the action takes place in the halls of the British Parliament and underground war rooms, and not on the battle fields of World War II. In the film, no shot is fired.
In making his decision, Churchill faced a public that was unaware of what was happening around it, an insecure King who was skeptical about the wisdom of taking positive action, and those in his own party who were plotting to replace him. The risks of action were great. Germany was poised at the point of invasion and many considered he had no alternative but to negotiate. It was Britain’s “Darkest Hour”, and the threat of invasion loomed. The Allied army was cornered on the beaches of Dunkirk, and the fate of Western Europe hung in the balance.
As Winston Churchill, Gary Oldman captures remarkably well the oratorical grandeur of Churchill, as well as his moments of self-doubt. Oldman delivers a bravura performance that entertains as much as it educates. His characterisation masterfully bridges the gap between a man who liked his liquor too much, and a respected statesman who had the ability to stir the British public to defiance. He stirred the nation gloriously in his famous “We shall fight (them) on the beaches….” speech, that was delivered to the British House of Commons on June 4, 1940, and which is featured in the final moments of the film.
Oldman gives a dynamic, personal, almost caricatured interpretation of Churchill, and he impersonates a man who always knew he had the support, loyalty, and understanding of his tolerant and loving wife, Clementine (Kristin Scott Thomas). The film wittily shows Clementine taking Churchill’s measure, which Churchill never failed to appreciate. Oldman’s characterisation is a beguiling account of Churchill’s darkest hour, and it tells us forcibly that he had enemies at home in Neville Chamberlain and Lord Halifax (Stephen Dillane), as he had away from Britain in Hitler and Mussolini.
The movie recounts a critical period in British history with energy, and narrative force. The film stresses the power of words, which gives it a strong theatrical quality. This is not a movie that focuses on military action, that was so relevant to Christopher Nolan’s WWII epic, “Dunkirk” (2017). Here, Oldman shouts his way through Churchill’s conflicts, and his words inspire.
The style of direction by Joe Wright brings fluidity to the action, and the movie’s direction underscores the humour evident in Oldman’s spirited performance as Churchill. This is a patriotic movie that aims to entertain, and a particular feature of the movie is the power of its musical score which accompanies the emotions communicated by characters’ actions.
The film is enjoyable cinema. It projects Winston Churchill as a significant world figure of great historical importance, in a very memorable and entertaining way. And it is Oldman’s film.
Peter W. Sheehan is Associate of the Australian Catholic Office for Film and Broadcasting.
Review by the Australian Catholic Office for Film and Broadcasting | Uploaded by: Fr Richard Healey