DARKEST HOUR. UK, 2017, 125 minutes, Colour. Gary Oldman, Kristin Scott Thomas, Lily James, Ronald Pickup, Steve Dillane, Ben Mendelssohn, Samuel West. Directed by Joe Wright.
In 1940, in Britain, Darkest Hour had an immediate resonance. The possibility of an invasion of Britain was more than possible. May was the month of Dunkirk. It preceded the Blitz. (Unfortunately, for the title of the film for a popular audience these days, it sounds more like a B-budget horror film.)
However, as with three other films during the past year, Their Finest, Churchill, Dunkirk, the audience is taken back to World War II, Britain in the 1940s. And one of the principal focus characters is Winston Churchill.
The action of this film, excellently written by Anthony McKernan, takes place, and a visual calendar indicates the passing of the days, in the latter part of May 1940. The parliament has lost confidence in Prime Minister, Neville Chamberlain, who was still associated with the allegations of appeasement prior to the outbreak of war, with leader of the opposition, Clement Atlee, denouncing him as unable to lead the nation in peacetime let alone in war. A coalition of parties for wartime government is suggested. Who will be prime minister? The conservatives do not like Winston Churchill at all. They prefer Halifax. The Labour Party prefers Churchill.
King George VI is a friend of Halifax and not a great supporter of Churchill but reluctantly agrees to the proposal. This film is very interesting in highlighting how Churchill was unpopular, especially with memories of loss of life at Gallipoli, his time in the political desert in the 20s and 30s, his staunch opposition to Hitler and warnings about imminent war.
The other feature of the film is to highlight how Churchill rose to the occasion given the invasions of Denmark, Norway, Belgium, the Netherlands and the defeat of France, the pushing back of the British troops to Dunkirk and Calais. Patriotic, even jingoistic, in his attitudes, Churchill is not keen on suing for peace, especially as promoted by Chamberlain and Halifax. In a scene, whether factual or not, Churchill goes to the Underground (and it is stated that he never travelled by bus and was only once in the Underground and got lost), talks to ordinary people, engages their opinion as to standing against Hitler and their opinion as to what they would do under any terms of peace that Hitler influenced.
This gives Churchill great confidence, bypasses his War Cabinet, goes into the parliament and makes his famous speech “… fight them on the beaches…” And wins the support of both sides of Parliament, including Chamberlain (who would die of cancer by the end of the year).
Many Britons consider Churchill is one of the greatest of all Britons – but this would date from his Darkest Hour experience and his decision to fight, survive, victory.
Many actors have portrayed Churchill and here is Gary Oldman, well-made up to look like Churchill, adopting his swagger, his oratory, quite an intense performance. Kristin Scott Thomas is Churchill’s wife, the always supportive but always critical, Clemmie. There is a very good supporting cast with Ronald Pickup as Chamberlain, Stephen Dillane as Halifax, Lily James as the secretary, Miss Layton, and, very surprisingly (who would have thought of casting him in this role), Ben Mendelssohn doing an effective job as George VI.
The screenplay is literate and intelligent. It contains a lot of Churchill’s own words – but the most telling comes when Halifax is asked what happened with Churchill’s landmark speech: “the English language has been mobilised and sent to war)!
A solid opportunity to go back into British World War II history.
Fr Peter Malone MSC is an associate of the Australian Catholic Office for Film & Broadcasting.