Having recently finished reading volume 2, aptly titled “Alone”, of the 3 volume biography on Winston Churchill, collectively known as The Last Lion, I was quite looking forward to see how a film could condense such an eclectic life into a two hour run time. The answer is that it is of course quite difficult. In Darkest Hour, the awards oriented feature directed by Joe Wright, we are introduced to the plight of the United Kingdom as the phony war turned into the Battle of France. With the outcome of the war, and therefore the film, preordained, Wright uses the political intrigue of Parliamentary politics to engage the audience and keep them guessing right up to the end.
In equal parts comedy and drama, the nature of Churchill as an eccentric genius is eloquently revealed in the opener as his newest stenographer and assistant is brought on board to help with transcribing his speeches. As the film progresses her arc mirrors his, and as she acts as the wall to which Churchill’s speeches and exposition lands, and she stands in admirably to represent the oft ignored “people” that the maneuvering factions seem indifferent to.
The production design of the film is exquisite, the period piece attire fantastically reproduced down to the laurels on the Royal Air Force uniforms, and the top notch cinematography elevates the use of light and staging to make otherwise drab bureaucratic affairs deep and engaging to the eye.
The film does stay fairly correct from a historical standpoint, minus the underground sequence at the end; which is more of a metaphor for Churchill’s finger finding the pulse of the British people during the start of the war than something that actually happened.
In contrast to Churchill’s 19th century attitude, the appeasers, represented by Halifax and Chamberlain have no will to fight, in fact Halifax was quite sympathetic to the Germans, something that the film glosses over. Chamberlains diagnosis of cancer, much like the other major moments in the film, are delivered with little telegraphing, which if anything makes them almost comical, despite being historical facts.
The film relies heavily on innovative transitions, including the abundant use of overhead shots that turn into god’s eye view of the battlefield, be it in France or in London. The use of the Calais garrisons’ role in the Dunkirk evacuation was an excellent minor point to dwell on, and it exemplified how little the British understood the new war they were in. As we all know now, a 4,000-man detachment being sacrificed in World War 2 counts as a hard call certainly, but not by any means a rare one. But at the time it was enough for the appeasers, notably in the film Halifax, to call into question if the war was worth fighting, and undermine Churchill’s position.
The crafting of the film echoes the film Downfall, of YouTube rant fame, and the 2010 Oscar bait, The King’s Speech. Downfall if anything is the perfect film to play immediately after Darkest Hour, in that both have faithfully recreated bunkers, and small windows into the lives of leaders in World War Two that are faithfully recreated down to the hats.
In light of the release of Dunkirk, this film could easily have been used in tandem in a visual art museum, or perhaps a history one, to explain the entirety of the British peril and action during the end of the Battle of France, luckily the film does not dwell to heavily on the Dunkirk episode, merely the design of Operation Dynamo, leaving the success of the operation, unintentionally of not, to Christopher Nolan.
Churchill flying to France to meet with the French leaders, something he did three times before the French capitulated, is recreated to show British blunders more-so than French failures and lack of will to fight. And although Churchill did not quite grasp the new form of warfare the Germans had unleashed, it is equally easy to state that no one else did as well.
Speaking of Churchill’s blunders, all of them are listed off as a sort of exposition of his flaws, some are warranted, some, such as the Norway action, less-so. If anything the appeasers who left Briton in such poor shape militarily compared to the German war machine are let off rather lightly, even if they are the primary antagonists in the film.
As for the character of Churchill, at times it does feel as if they scoured for a collection quotes and events and then layered them into a narrative, the problem is that it does at times bounce the film from offbeat to quite serious with the turn of a hat. In The Last Lion, Churchill’s demeanor is described aptly, and Gary Oldman evokes this demeanor fantastically. “Though Churchill proclaimed in public that setbacks stiffened resolve and would somehow in time transform into stepping stones to victory, when he received bad news in private, he resorted to a behavior associated with children, artists, and geniuses: he sulked. He termed each new defeat the gloomiest, the most troublesome, the most fearful, the blackest.” if at times it appears that Oldman has taken perhaps too much liberty with Churchill’s swings, the tomes of history appear to back him up, from his witty responses to his moments of black depression, and also his moments of tearful “blubbering”, as the man himself called it.
The film ends on a triumphant note, which is honestly the best way it could have ended, as we all are quite aware how the rest of the war went. The loose ends of the films story are effectively cut off and cauterized, with a text based exposition after the curtains go down. Darkest Hour is not a film for everyone, it is not an artful look at the fighting spirit of men, like Dunkirk is, but for political nerds and history buffs it offers a visually interesting tale, carried by fantastic acting and better cinematography.