Darkest Hour (2017)
Few would dispute the statement that war, hostile, armed conflict between nations, represents one of the worst manifestations of the human condition. Suffering and death enshrouds the globe cause entire populations to spiral into an understandable depression. A side effect of such desperate times is the opportunity for certain individuals to rise above the despair achieving greatness through an innate ability to inspire hope. Last year a film gained recognition as one of the best for that year, ‘The Darkest Hour’. Ostensibly the film is a biography of Winston Churchill (Gary Oldman) encompassing May. 1940. The story remained true to the uniquely turbulent nature of those days as England, along with much of Europe, face annihilation, subjugation under a draconian fascist dictator. Winston Churchill was unarguably one of the greatest orators in history. Long before the sound bite or tweet people were required to assemble their thoughts into sentences, paragraphs and complete speeches. Unlike the dog whistle string of words selected by committee, Churchill gave considerable thought into his words, infusing them with his passion, resolve and determination. This film coves a particularly tenuous period for Great Britain when their existence was precariously balanced over a precipice to oblivion. As this story dramatically demonstrates, this statement was not hyperbole, many in the highest echelons of government believed the ancient nation of England was over. Churchill was a man few wanted in the office of Prime Minister, but history would prove was the only viable option. Mr. Oldman recently took home the coveted Academy Award for Best Actor in a Leading Role for this portrayal. His performance is near perfect, deeply nuanced and layered. It is possible to watch this film repeatedly and gain deeper understanding of the man and the circumstances with each experience.
Immediately, the filmmaker establishes a motif to highlight the urgency inherent that period of history, a simple flip clock display showing the date. May 1940 was truly demonstrative of the title. Herr Hitler had just marched through Poland igniting World War II. The Nazi army was invading France and was on the precipice of its surrender. When France falls only the narrow channel of water separates a well equipped and ambitious army from overrunning the hallowed shores of England. Parliament was understandably concerned for the future of the sovereignty of the Kingdom. The prospect of France’s imminent fall had instant repercussions in the highest echelons of the British government. The opposition Labour Party in Parliament demands the resignation of British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain (Ronald Pickup) for being too weak in the face of the Nazi offensive. Both parties were challenged to find a replacement. The Conservative Party wanted Viscount Halifax (Stephen Dillane), to assume the position but he had little interest in such great responsibility particularly during wartime. The default selection was the First Lord of the Admiralty, Winston (Gary Oldman).
The first glimpse of Churchill, one of history’s most recognized statesman he is in a disheveled bathrobe tearing through his home. when his new personal secretary, Elizabeth Layton (Lily James). When she misunderstands what he said, he fires her, a decision immediately reversed by the one person he unconditionally respects, his wife Clementine (Kristin Scott Thomas), lovingly referred to as Clemmie. Miss Layton fills a vital position within this story, the scribe witnessing and recording samples of the greatest speeches ever delivered. She also provides a contrast with the leading character, a demur proper young English woman with a strongly opinionated man of conviction with a deep-seated love of England. As the newly proposed Prime Minister Churchill must follow custom and tradition by have an official meeting with King George VI (Ben Mendelsohn). Although the King doesn’t fully support the selection he officially requests that Churchill assume the post of Prime Minister to for a coalition government that would include Chamberlain and Halifax. Churchill accepts, kisses the outstretched hand of the king and backs out of the room. There were several reasons that the opposition party were displeased with Churchill for several reasons including a campaign during World War I, unpopular views concerning India’s independence and supporting Edward VIII during his abdication of the throne. His first speech to Parliament as Prime Minister included the immortal phrase promising to give all to the effort including "Blood, Sweat and Tears". Many in the audience know snippets of Churchill’s famous speech but it is thrilling to watch them delivered in their original context. The stress the man was under would have broken a lesser man, it only served to stiffen his resolve.
Churchill was one of the first to express grave concerns over Hitler’s rapid rise to power. In those first days in May 1940 it was certain that Germany would tear through France without any resistance placing them on the shore of the English Channel. The fear that the Nazis would target England and would remain unstoppable. Back channel talks indicated that the Italian ambassador could expedite peace talks between Germany and England, tantamount to surrender. Churchill faced another immediate problem. The British Expeditionary Force was trapped with their backs against the water. Thousands of British soldiers were facing certain death and defeat, a situation that Churchill found untenable. He places a call to the President of the United States, Franklin D. Roosevelt. The President declined to aid in the form of military support. When pressed for the ships Britain paid for, FDR explained that new legislation precluded delivery. Unable to accept the sacrifice of so many loyal Englishmen the Prime Minister devised an unorthodox solution, Operation Dynamo. The order was given that civilian crafts between 30 and 100 feet were to head to Dunkirk to evacuate the troops. The order was given on May 25, barely a fortnight into Churchill’s tenue as Prime Minister. By June 6th 85% of the men were safely returned to English soil.
Still, the opposition party continued to press for the removal of Churchill from 10 Downing Street. He had a major address to Parliament where he was supposed to concede, accepting the prosed peace talks. On the way to Parliament he unexpectedly gets out of the limousine walking to the nearest station of the Underground. After completely bewildering a woman by asking direction he boards the next train. Once the passengers realize who he was the all moved away, deferring to his rank. Churchill breaks the formality by asking for a match to light his ever president cigar. He proceeds to ask the people their opinion of the current trouble eliciting their advice for the next course of action. The passengers unanimously were in favor of fighting. England is a proud nation, populated by fiercely loyal subjects. That wholehearted support fighting, in the streets with broom handles if necessary. The zeal of the passengers confirms what Churchill already knew, he didn’t represent a political party, but rather his duty was to represent the will of the people. Upon arriving Parliament, the opposition are well represented, anxious for Churchill to finish his address signaling their proposal of the vote of no confidence. Churchill begins his speech, hastily prepared and dictated to Miss Layton. Towards the end of his speech, Churchill proclaims that "We shall fight on the beaches" should the Germans invade. Churchill was responsible for several of the most impassioned speeches in ever, but these words changed the course of history. The intensity of his words was infectious, brining both sides to a loud demonstration of agreement. Even Lord Chamberlain was moved to cheering in agreement.
Mr. Oldman has been a favorite of mine for many years typically portraying psychotic villains with over the top exuberance. For examples I suggest ‘Leon: The Professional’ or the ‘Fifth Element’. His Academy Award winning portrayal demonstrates the incredible range and power of his talent. So many film buffs have been indoctrinated to equate cutting edge special effects and testosterone driven action with the quality of the movie. ‘Darkest Hour’ disproves this supposition. As mentioned, this film can be watched repeatedly, in fact, the quality of the production demands embracing the experience multiple times. The story is textured, beautifully layered and nuanced. While this is very much a one man show each supporting character enhances the marvelous integration of the narrative. An established difficulty with a biography of historically based story is inherent problem with creating suspense when the outcome is a matter of record. The sheer passion of the performances delivering a screenplay worthy of introducing a new generation to the oratory skills of Winston Churchill. Almost every story based of true events requires some degree of dramatic license, this is necessary into to establish and maintain an entertaining flow to the account. A notable example occurs when Halifax notes that "that Churchill "mobilized the English language and sent it into battle." That quote is attributed to journalist Edward R. Morrow regarding President John F. Kennedy. Although some details were modified the result was an accurate and passionate exploration of a man who helped prevent us from being subjected to the draconian rule of the Third Reich.
• Includes a digital copy of Darkest Hour (Subject to expiration. Go to NBCUCodes.com for details.)
• Into Darkest Hour
• Gary Oldman: Becoming Churchill
• Feature Commentary with Director Joe Wright