Film Review: Darkest Hour
Director: Joe Wright, Bobbie Oliver
Historians will find much to discuss and dispute in Darkest Hour, a film that covers the short period of Churchill’s life in May 1940 from just before he became prime minister of Britain until the evacuation of British troops from Dunkirk. The film has a number of strengths, one being Gary Oldman’s brilliant, unheroic portrayal of Churchill as a man plagued by doubts in his own ability, who drank his way through a significant amount of alcohol (mostly whisky) every day, and who was desperately dependent upon his wife’s support and encouragement. Churchill’s weaknesses are a major theme of the film as is his unpopularity in his own party. Ironically, it appears, while even the Labour Party leader, Clement Attlee, preferred Churchill as Prime Minister, many Conservatives did their best to prevent him replacing Neville Chamberlain, and then to undermine him once he was in the job. Clearly, in 1940, Churchill’s parliamentary colleagues did not regard him as being the answer to Britain’s many problems.
On the other hand, the film portrays Churchill as having the support of the British people – exemplified by a rather bizarre scene in which he abandons his car in grid locked traffic and travels by tube to Westminster. During the journey, he meets everyone in the carriage and asks their opinion of whether Britain should negotiate a peace with Hitler. “Never”, they all cry. The British public had been kept in the dark about the speed with which Hitler’s armies had invaded Europe and that Britain risked losing its entire professional army because the dominant Luftwaffe prevented the Royal Navy evacuating the retreating British troops from Dunkirk and Calais. This begs the question as to whether the opinion of the ‘man or woman in the street’ had any value, but it is depicted as influencing Churchill in his refusal to enter into negotiations with Hitler and Mussolini.
No doubt any director of a historical film faces the dilemma of casting actors that look and sound reasonably like the characters they are intended to portray. Ben Mendelsohn was easily identifiable as King George VI (and, for me, more convincing in the role than was Colin Firth in The King’s Speech). Kristen Scott Thomas was less believable as Clementine Churchill. I remember Clementine as a tall, robust lady, and the frail Kristen just didn’t seem right, despite my admiration of her in other roles. Attlee and Chamberlain were instantly recognisable.
At times I felt as if I was watching a play with stage sets – the film takes place mostly indoors, whether in the House of Commons, Churchill’s bunker, or 10 Downing Street. There are some odd, stylised overhead shots, such as those showing German war planes flying over France; in particular, the shot of the garrison at Calais being bombed out of existence is reminiscent of some scenes from Lord of the Rings. Despite its weaknesses, I recommend the film. Those who know less of the period’s history are likely to enjoy its high drama and pathos, but perhaps only those who are familiar with the events of World War II can fully appreciate the awfulness of the times. Darkest Hour, indeed.