Darkest Hour (2017)

  • Time: 114 min
  • Genre: Biography | Drama | History
  • Director: Joe Wright
  • Cast: Gary Oldman, John Hurt, Lily James, Kristin Scott Thomas, Ben Mendelsohn


Within days of becoming Prime Minister of Great Britain, Winston Churchill (Gary Oldman) must face one of his most turbulent and defining trials: exploring a negotiated peace treaty with Nazi Germany, or standing firm to fight for the ideals, liberty and freedom of a nation. As the unstoppable Nazi forces roll across Western Europe and the threat of invasion is imminent, and with an unprepared public, a skeptical King, and his own party plotting against him, Churchill must withstand his darkest hour, rally a nation, and attempt to change the course of world history.


  • Words are powerful. They can inflame and inspire. The latter was certainly true for Winston Churchill, who served as Great Britain’s Prime Minister from 1940 – 1945 and once again from 1951 – 1955. The British Bulldog, voted the Greatest Briton of all time in a 2002 poll, has been having quite the Renaissance this year with Brian Cox portraying him in this year’s Churchill and John Lithgow giving a staggering, Emmy-awarded performance in Netflix’s The Crown. Christopher Nolan kept him in the background for Dunkirk, preferring to focus on the soldiers and civilians fighting the good fight. How fortuitous then that Darkest Hour arrives mere months after Nolan’s success, for Joe Wright’s drama narrows in on the first month of Churchill’s first term as Prime Minister, during which he changed the tide of history.

    It is May 9, 1940. Britain is in the midst of a war that they are certain to lose. The government has lost confidence in current Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain (Ronald Pickup), who has no choice but to tender his resignation to King George VI (Ben Mendelsohn) and help pick his successor. Though Lord Halifax (Stephen Dillane) is the popular choice amongst his party, he doesn’t have the support of the opposition and so the Prime Ministership is reluctantly bestowed upon the 66-year-old Churchill, first introduced in his pyjamas, lighting up a cigar, having a liquid breakfast, and duly traumatising his new secretary Elizabeth Layton (Lily James).

    It bears noting that Churchill wasn’t immediately the great white hope for Britain’s ills. In fact, the only support he seemed to have was from his wife Clementine (the always superb Kristin Scott Thomas), who advises him to tone down his overbearing rudeness so that others may love and respect him as she does. Churchill’s support of Edward VIII abdication and subsequent marriage to Wallis Simpson, amongst a litany of other catastrophes, colours the King’s view of him. Halifax and Chamberlain, meanwhile, conspire to undermine Churchill, whose stance on the war, is in direct conflict with their intention to broker a peace deal with Hitler. If they can get Churchill on record to state that he refuses to engage in peace talks, then they can vote him out and Halifax can be Prime Minister. The task appears easy enough as Churchill was disliked by his colleagues, one of whom points out that Churchill “wakes with a scotch, bottle of champagne for lunch, another one for dinner, brandy and port until the dawn. I wouldn’t let him borrow my bicycle.”

    Churchill himself was flecked with self-doubt, his “I have nothing to offer but blood, toil, tears, and sweat” declaration during his first day as Prime Minister seemingly turning into a self-fulfilling prophecy since he had no concrete plans on how to win the war. All he had was his bluster, and yet he knows that it is that very same bluster that can imbue the people with a feeling they never even knew they possessed. As a chagrined Halifax would later note, Churchill “mobilised the English language and sent it into battle.”

    One of the great pleasures in Darkest Hour is in listening to Churchill orate, whether to rouse the nation (“Whatever the cost and agony may be be, conquer we must and conquer we shall!”) or admonish a colleague (“Will you stop interrupting me while I’m interrupting you!”). Darkest Hour is in no way subtle, but neither was Churchill and director Joe Wright somehow expands the film to fit such an outsized character, pulling off the difficult trick of making what is essentially a theatrical chamber piece into something cinematic. There’s an eloquence in Wright’s execution, even in its hokier, more romanticised moments such as the scene in which Churchill rides the underground for the first time and uses his interactions with the surprised civilians to inform his speech in Parliament after giving the go on Operation Dynamo. Every moment just feels right.

    Of course, much of the film’s success is dependent upon its lead actor and Oldman, rendered unrecognisable behind layers of makeup, is more than up to the task, never forgetting the very human man behind the lion’s roar.

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  • (RATING: ☆☆☆½ out of 5 stars)

    GRADE: B-


    IN BRIEF: A solid performance by Gary Oldman makes this talky but always engrossing bio-pic work.

    SYNOPSIS: The first month of Winston Churchill’s leadership as Prime Minister.

    RUNNING TIME: 2 hrs., 5 mins.

    JIM’S REVIEW: The filmed biography is an odd lot. It begins at a disadvantage from the start. Whereas a biographical novel can leisurely tell its tale with highly detailed research that spans a lifetime, the movie version usually is conventional storytelling with condensed timelines and hastily constructed dramatic flourishes, blurring facts and fiction and purporting to be true. Labeled as “based on a true story” is oft times misleading. Such is the case of Joe Wright’s Darkest Hour, a well crafted and earnest attempt to tell the political beginnings of World War II and the early career of Sir Winston Churchill, as England’s Prime Minister.

    An unrecognizable Gary Oldman plays an unrecognizable Churchill. (Much has been said about the astonishing resemblance of the actor to this great man. But he barely resembles the Prime Minister, no matter what others may say. Make-up and prosthetics never fully capture the likeness of the man, although they come very close at times. But the actor certainly captures the mannerisms, voice, stance, and temperament of this crusader. It’s a virtuoso performance that one can easily admire.

    The film delves into the first month of Churchill’s career as he tries to convince Parliament and his nation of the rise of Hitler and the risk of losing his beloved country to the Nazi movement. War is the only outcome in his mind and uniting his country against these forces is an uphill battle. Andrew McCarten plays fast and loose with the facts, but follows the basic outline of historical events. (Case in point: A mawkish ride on the Underground overplays the nationalistic fervor and seems very stilted and untrue, even if this scene makes its political argument and justification of the pending war.) Darkest Hour is rather talky and overtly dogmatic, with various impassioned speeches about survival and courage, amid all of the political intrigue and one-upmanship.

    Mr. Wright’s direction remains solid, although he again relies too heavily on slo-motion techniques, long tracking shots, and never-ending aerial photography, his trademark signatures, which becomes a bit tiresome. However, he assembles a fine cast that take these stock characters and breathes life into their stereotypical roles.

    Kristin Scott Thomas masterfully plays his loyal wife, Clemmie, and she delivers an aristocratic elegance as his devoted spouse. Lily James is his supportive secretary, an embodiment of the English middle class and sounding board to Churchill’s mood swings. Stephen Dillane and Ronald Pickup are just fine as his adversaries, Viscount Halifax and former Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain. Ben Mendelsohn, as King George VI, brings the perfect degree of trepidation and concern, always questioning the unpleasantry and motives of another equally powerful man who ruled England with him.

    But it is Mr. Oldman who centers the film in this showiest of role. Without his whole-hearted interpretation of a man defending his unpopular position as a war hawk during a time when the world prayed for peace, the movie could not have achieve its overall impact. Darkest Hour is a seriously minded film that contemplates the beginnings of World War II and the man who took his nation to victory.

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  • British Director Joe Wright has admitted his replay of Churchill is relevant to current America: The director claims to be heartened by the growing resistance to the president’s increasing tyranny.
    But the connection is deeper and more troublesome. Wright’s Churchill is specifically inflected into a figure of Trump populism. The film is a defence of Trump. As no responsible person could say Trump is Churchillian, Gary Oldman’s — however brilliant — performance serves to reduce Churchill to Trump.
    The most serious malfeasance is the PM’s visit to the London Underground. On the brief trip to the next station, Westminster, Churchill meets a carload of Ordinary Citizens, overcomes their awe, learns their names, cracks a few jokes, finds out about them, and hears their full-throated rejection of any peace over war against Hitler. He learns the voiceless citizenry happen to agree with him!
    The encounter reverses Churchill’s decision to join the freedom-sacrificing pacifiers. Instead he stands firm, rallies the government and — spoiler alert— five years later defeats the Nazis.
    The underground scene is not based in Churchill’s real life at all. Instead it derives from Shakespeare’s Henry V, when on the eve of Agincourt Hal walks incognito among his motley army connecting to his roots and drawing strength from them.
    Wright’s version is stilted and dangerous. Instead of poetry and sincerity it seems like an animated Communist poster, all the faces radiant and of one heart and mind to risk a nations’ population in an uncertain war. Indeed in this idealistic vision the one black man on the train — indeed, in the film, and possibly in the England of that time — can complete Churchill’s classic poetic quotation.
    This truly “fake” scene portrays Churchill as a populist, just like our Donnie! He alone knows what The People want, hears their needs and resolutely serves their purpose in the face of conventional politics and against the elite (the class he of course enjoys).
    Even the Churchill traits here that have historic basis are by that fake scene mobilized to present Churchill as the Trump kind of leader. As a serial flip-flopper, he’s rejected by his own party. He’s bullying, impatient and insulting to his staff. His career is pocked with spectacular failures, with Gallipoli standing in for Trump’s many — of course, personally profitable — bankruptcies. He takes corrective advice from his First Lady, the fashionably done-up Clementine evoking the combo Melanka. Where others operate by knowledge and principle, he goes by his — here prosthetic — gut.
    His daily 4 p.m. nap evokes Trump’s sliver of a work-day that punctuate his golf breaks. In fact, Churchill worked two full days every day by taking an extra sleep, shower and breakfast within each 24-hour period. This Churchill’s explanation — “I work late” — doesn’t cover that. It instead shows Churchill Trump-like in seeming to be lazy by grabbing an extra break.
    In short, this Churchill serves to valourize a leader who in these surface particulars is like Trump: quirky, disliked, a political outsider, unpredictable (to the point of frightening the king), but with a preternatural dedication to and insight into The People.
    What’s omitted is the very essence of Churchill, everything that distinguishes him from Trump: his massive education and scholarship, his brilliant research, his idealistic, humane eloquence, his long and varied political experience and his rock-solid moral character. Sure, if you set aside all the ways Churchill was the antithesis to Trump, then you can make Trump seem like another Churchill, an outsider populist unfairly maligned by everyone with sense and responsibility, who are here played as treasonous cowards.
    Wright’s Churchill goes wrong in another scene. Churchill knew his Shakespeare. Churchill would NEVER say “Lead on, Macduff.” The verb is “lay on,” as in hand to hand (not Trump’s foot in mouth) combat.
    This undercurrent may explain the film’s weird opening shots: the Nazi army and military equipment in massive uniform array. In bringing us into the action, the element Wright chooses to characterize the time is not landscape, city or characters, but the threat of a war. The images connote Little Rocket Man.
    The first reference to Churchill is the shot of his empty seat in parliament. Under the threat of war, the leadership is a vacancy into which the people’s saviour will by our good fortune slip. However unpopular, unconventional, unattractive, he will prove the right man at the right time and place. Really.
    As the film opens on the Nazi threat, it closes on the Churchillian resolution. And of course it’s another distortion. “He mobilized the English language and sent it off to war” was not the wisdom of Lord Halifax but of Edward Murrow, later quoted by John Kennedy. But why quibble at misrepresentation and more egregious lies when it’s in service of a larger (or in this case, “fake”) truth?
    Perhaps in one specific the film’s parallel offers promise: Five months after the war the public voted Churchill out.

  • “Not buggering it up”.

    Rating: 7*.

    As Doctor Who repeatedly points out, time is most definitely a tricksy thing. As I think I’ve commented on before, the events of 1940-45 are not in my lifetime but were sufficiently fresh to my parents that they were still actively talked about… so they still appear “current” to me. But I find it astonishing to realize that to a teen viewer this film is equivalent in timeframe to the sinking of the Titanic! #ancienthistory! So I suspect your connection to this film will be strongly affected by your age, and that was definitely reflected in the average age at my showing which must have been at least 60.

    It’s 1940 and Western Europe is under siege. Neville Chamberlain (Ronald Pickup, “The Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel”) is the Conservative Prime Minister but is voted out of office in an attempt to form a grand coalition government with Labour leader Clement Atlee (David Schofield). Despite appearing a shoe-in for the role, Viscount Halifax (Stephen Dillane) turns it down, thinking that his alternative (and bête noire) would drink from the poisoned chalice and be quickly be out of his (and Chamberlain’s) hair. For that alternative choice is the volatile and unpredictable Churchill (Gary Oldman), grudgingly invited into the job by King George VI (Ben Mendelsohn, “Rogue One”). With the Nazi’s bearing down on the 300,000 encircled troops at Dunkirk, and with calls from his war cabinet to capitulate and seek terms of settlement, this is indeed both Churchill’s, and the country’s, ‘darkest hour’.

    Despite the woeful lack of historical knowledge among today’s youngsters, most will be at least aware of the story of Dunkirk, with many having absorbed Christopher Nolan’s film of last summer. This film is almost the matching bookend to that film, showing the terrifying behind-closed-door events that led up to that miracle. For it was terrifying seeing how close Britain came to the brink, and I’m not sure even I really appreciated that before. While this might have been a “thriller” if it had been a fictional story, we well know the outcome of the story: but even with this knowledge I still found the film to be extremely tense and claustrophobic as the net draws in around Churchill’s firmly-held beliefs.

    Gary Oldman’s performance is extraordinary, and his award nominations are well-deserved. We have grown so used to some of his more over-the-top Russian portrayals in films like “Air Force One” and last year’s (pretty poor) “The Hitman’s Bodyguard” that it is easy to forget what a nuanced and flexible actor he is. Ever since that “No, surely not!” moment of that first glimpse of the film’s trailer, it has almost been impossible to ‘see’ Oldman behind the brilliant make-up of the character (Kazuhiro Tsuji gets a special credit for it). But his eyes are in there, and there are some extreme close-ups (for example, during a bizarre and tense phone call with Roosevelt (David Strathairn)) when you suddenly see “There you are!”.

    While I have nothing against Brian Cox as an actor, I far prefer the portrayal of Churchill on show here compared to last year’s “Churchill”: true that that film was set three or four stressful years later, but Cox’s Churchill was portrayed as an incompetent fool, an embarrassment to the establishment that have to work around him. Oldman’s Churchill is irascible, unreasonable, but undeniably a leader and a great orator.

    Mirroring “Churchill” though, the action is seen through the eyes of Churchill’s put-upon secretary, here played delightfully by Lily James (“Downton Abbey”, “Baby Driver”) who perfectly looks and sounds the part. The character is more successful than that of Ella Purnell’s Garrett in that she is given more room to develop her character and for the audience to warm to her. Oldman is getting all the kudos, but Lily James really deserves some for her touching and engaging performance here.

    Also in Oldman’s shadow is the always marvelous Kristin Scott Thomas (“Four Weddings and a Funeral”, “The English Patient”) as Clemmie Churchill, expressing all the love and frustration associated with being a long-suffering wife to an over-worked husband in the public service.

    At the pen is “The Theory of Everything” writer Anthony McCarten, and I’d like to say its a great script but with most of the best lines (“a sheep in sheep’s clothing” – LoL) coming from Winston himself it’s difficult to tell. Some of the scenes can get a bit laborious and at 125 minutes – though not long by any means – the script could still perhaps have had a nip and tuck here and there.

    Where some of this time is well spent though is in some sedate shots of London street life, across two separate scenes panning across everyday folk as the stresses of war start to become more evident. This is just one of the areas where director Joe Wright (“Atonement”, “Pride and Prejudice”) shows considerable panache, ably assisted by the cinematography of Bruno Delbonnel (“Inside Llewyn Davis”): a boy closes his telescope-fingers around Churchill’s plane; a bomb’s eye-view of the beleaguered Brigadier Nicholson in Calais; and – very impressively – the smoky imperiousness of the House of Commons set.

    And most-importantly Wright delivers what Christopher Nolan couldn’t deliver in “Dunkirk”: a properly CGI’d vista of hundred of small boats crossing the channel to Dunkirk. Now THAT is a scene that Kenneth Branagh could justly have looked in awe at!!!

    There are a number of scenes that require disbelief to be suspended though: the biggest one being a tube train ride – very moving and effective I must say – but one that features the longest journey between any two stations on the District Line than has ever been experienced!

    So this is a great film for really reliving a knife-edge moment in British history, and is highly recommended particularly for older viewers. If I’m honest though, between “Darkest Hour”, “Churchill” and John Lithgow’s excellent portrayal in “The Crown” I’m all over portrayals of the great man for a few years. Can we please move on now Hollywood?

    (For the full graphical review please visit bob-the-movie-man.com).

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