December 15, 2017 – Great leaders are forged in the fires of crises. Few leaders faced a crisis more dire than Winston Churchill (played brilliantly by Gary Oldman of “The Dark Knight Rises”) did in May of 1940. Most of the British Army was surrounded in France. Germany was on the verge of conquering mainland Europe and England seemed to be next.
“Darkest Hour” is a biographical film about the tough choices facing Churchill in those days at the end of May, both military and diplomatic, as the newly appointed Prime Minister of England. Just across the English Channel, he faced a deadly military enemy in Germany, and in Parliament, he faced powerful political opponents, former Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain (Ronald Pickup of “The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel”) and Viscount Halifax (Edward Wood, played by Stephen Dillane of “Game of Thrones” TV series).
While Churchill wanted to fight Germany, Chamberlain and Halifax argued for a peace treaty with Germany. For a time, Churchill appeared to bow to political pressure and agree to allow diplomatic talks for a peace treaty with Germany through an intermediary, Benito Mussolini of Italy. Churchill stayed silent and bided his time. Letting his true feelings be known at a later date. In doing so, he outwitted his political opponents seeking to trap him into saying he opposed negotiations.
The immediate problem facing Churchill was the plight of the British Army, trapped at Dunkirk. While the film “Dunkirk,” which was also released this year, covered that evacuation, this film covers the time just before that, including military decisions made to prepare for the evacuation. Much is made in the film about Churchill's decision to order the British garrison at Calais to hold out to the last man against the might of the German Army in order to provide more time for the evacuation of Dunkirk.
This film uses a literary technique to good effect, that is, using the character of Churchill's secretary, Elizabeth Layton (Lilly James of “Cinderella”) as a stand-in for the audience, as a witness to great events, and to whom great events and decisions are occasionally explained for the benefit of the audience.
Mostly, however, this film is a showcase for Gary Oldman's powerful portrayal of Churchill. Just as masterful is the makeup and prosthetics that make Oldman look like Churchill. David Malinowski, Lucy Sibbick and Kazuhiro Tsuji are among those on Oldman's makeup and prosthetics team. Oldman doesn't look like Churchill without this team. Oldman has been quoted as saying he would not have played Churchill at all unless he was able to persuade Kazuhiro Tsuji to come out of retirement to work on this film. This is a work of true movie magic.
The rest of the supporting cast is also very strong, including Kristen Scott Thomas (“The English Patient”) as Churchill's wife, Clementine, and Ben Mendelsohn (“Rogue One: A Star Wars Story”) as King George VI. This is the sort of performance, and the sort of Oscar Bait movie released at the end of the year in hopes of getting awards. It seems assured, given the apparent size of the Anglophile voting bloc in the Academy, of at least a nomination for Oldman. This film rates a B.
Some historical notes: There are very serious disagreements among historians as to the military value of Churchill's command to the forces at Calais to fight to the end. Little is said in this film of the French forces who fought on for a week longer after the defeat of British forces at Calais. It was French forces who provided cover for the Dunkirk evacuation at the end.
There is nothing in this film about Churchill's even more deadly decisions regarding the French. A month after the Dunkirk evacuation, Churchill ordered an attack on the French ships anchored at Mers-el-Kebir, Algeria. Nearly 1,300 French sailors were killed in that attack by the British Navy to prevent the French warships from falling into German hands.
The British attack on French ships at Mars-el-Kebir was the result of a far more complicated political and military situation than I will get into in this review. Suffice it to say, that decision is far more indicative of the kind of tough decisions that Churchill was willing to make to win the war than anything you will see in “Darkest Hour.”
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