'Darkest Hour' Sets Winston Churchill in the Brightest Light

Although the rousing performance of Gary Oldman as the famed British prime minister may attract American audiences, the wartime drama ultimately lacks resonance.
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Darkest Hour Winston Churchill Photo

Gary Oldman stars as Winston Churchill in director Joe Wright's DARKEST HOUR, a Focus Features release.

Joe Wright’s Darkest Hour begins on May 4th, 1940, when Winston Churchill was First Lord of the Admiralty (the equivalent of Secretary of the Navy in the U.S.), a member of prime minister Neville Chamberlain’s war cabinet. He was appointed to that position in September of 1939, right after Britain declared war on Germany. The film opens during a crisis of confidence in Chamberlain’s government. A month earlier, Churchill had moved his navy into the Baltic to confront Hitler whose forces were bearing down on Norway, but disagreements among members of the war cabinet, all represented in the movie, halted his plans. In the immediate aftermath, the Nazis invaded Norway.

While Churchill’s Baltic plan is not depicted in the film, the more widely known stance of Chamberlain’s belief in appeasing Hitler is, and occupies Darkest Hour’s opening sequences. That view, loudly contested by Churchill, eventually led to Chamberlain’s resignation. Another government had to be formed, and Chamberlain (Ronald Pickup) rallied his closest allies in an attempt to pick its leader and his successor. His first choice was not Winston Churchill (Gary Oldman). The curmudgeonly statesman is first seen in Darkest Hour when his new secretary Elizabeth Layton (Lily James) arrives, toting her typewriter. She is warned, at risk of being fired, to double space the First Lord’s dictation.

In a November telephone interview from Los Angeles, Joe Wright explains that Churchill was a notoriously difficult employer. “He expected a lot from those who worked for him,” he says, “and his secretaries were kept on 24-hour call so that at any time of the day or night he would be able to send off a memo about every aspect of the war from sugar availability to the movements of giant armies.” According to one historian, Churchill’s frequent and numerous memos, sent to his war cabinet and staff members, were known as “minutes.” In the troubling times chronicled in the film, from 1940 to 1941, they were often dubbed “the Lord’s prayers.”

Darkest Hour Movie Photo

In an opening scene, as Churchill dictates his correspondence to Elizabeth from his bed, a kitten nibbles at his toes. The scene is described in Mr. Churchill’s Secretary (1958), Layton’s memoir of her years spent working for the prime minister. In addition to Clementine “Clemmie” Churchill, the PM’s wife and confidante, portrayed by Kristin Scott Thomas, Elizabeth adds a feminine perspective to Wright’s film. “Many of my films to date have been quite female centered,” the director says, “and when I first read the script, there were not many women involved. I was keen to develop their role.” As he worked on the script, Wright says, he began to imagine the movie as a political thriller.

Darkest Hour is in that vein, a claustrophobic, male-dominated space, set mostly in bomb-proof basement warrens, and the war cabinet’s dimly lit room, at times misted over by cigar smoke; this is somewhat balanced by more brightly lit scenes in which Churchill confesses his doubts to Clemmie about his ability to form a coalition government. His public persona betrayed nothing of this lack of self-confidence; in a speech delivered just weeks after he became prime minister, Churchill articulated a brighter picture of Britain’s armed forces and their ability to win the war than actually was the case. In that scene, he says, in part, that were Britain to lose, the world would “sink into the abyss of a new dark age,” and the need was to “brace ourselves to our duties, and so bear ourselves, that if the British Empire and its Commonwealth last for a thousand years, men will still say, This was their finest hour.” The “finest hour” came to characterize this period of history for the British people.

Darkest Hour Kristin Scott Thomas Photo

Kristin Scott Thomas and Gary Oldman star as Clementine and Winston Churchill in 'Darkest Hour.'

Asked why his film’s title infers the opposite, Wright replies: “On a personal level, Churchill would have to go through his ‘darkest hour’ in order to lead Britain in the fight against Nazism, bigotry and hate.” The British filmmaker’s biopic is very much informed by an historical perspective of Churchill as a great statesman — although British historians are by no means in agreement on this point. Some believe that he justified the war on shaky moral grounds, as, in Churchill’s words, they were “fighting to save the world from . . . all that is most sacred to man.” Others argue that rather than strategy, Churchill employed a baseless optimism to rally the people. He was 65 years old when he became prime minister, and while the film depicts him as often intransigent, especially with the war cabinet, he is also deeply troubled. “He was not a young man by any means but he had a kind of extraordinary and vital energy that was almost manic,” Wright says. “That was our viewpoint in this film.”

On May 10th, when King George VI (Ben Mendelsohn) asked Churchill to form a government, Hitler’s army was in Belgium, and France was about to become the sixth European country to fall to Nazi domination. Like Churchill’s political opponents, at first the king favored appeasement, as Wright depicts in the film, and the new prime minister, feeling isolated, exaggerates Britain’s preparedness in order to convince his constituents of the necessity of war. Darkest Hour is at its best in the scenes with Churchill and George VI (Queen Elizabeth II’s father, and the subject of The King’s Speech); to paraphrase Malvolio in Twelfth Night, both men had greatness thrust upon them, the king after his brother’s abdication. Asked about the obvious chemistry between Oldman and Mendelsohn, Wright observes: “I think they’re both great actors and they had a deep respect for each other. Respect is the cornerstone of a good collaboration.”

Oldman, who is receiving Oscar buzz for his performance in Darkest Hour, endured three hours of each day during production donning prosthetics. It is for British audiences and historians to decide whether or not he evokes the wartime PM, but Oldman’s portrayal is sometimes engaging, especially in a delightful scene in the “map room” when Churchill speaks in confidence to Elizabeth, or when, alone with his monarch, he exposes a delicate vulnerability. Wright’s careful attention to production design (by frequent collaborator Sarah Greenwood) is especially apparent in Darkest Hour where most of the sets were built, but the film’s score (by Dario Marianelli) is incessant and often mixed too loudly over dialogue.

Best known for Atonement (2007), Wright also directed Anna Karenina (2012) and Pride and Prejudice (2003), all three featuring an excellent performance by Keira Knightley. He is an actor’s director and, in the end, it is the film’s credible cast that will carry this historical biopic for American audiences. Absent a considerable knowledge of World War II beyond Dunkirk, the story has no resonance. Also, a film deifying Churchill is a risky proposition in America: although we were allied with Britain in World War II, the PM fiercely defended the British Empire and its legacy of colonialism. 

'Darkest Hour' opens in U.S. theaters on November 22, 2017.