Darkest Hour

Review by © Jane Freebury

If the impression we get is really true, rather than chosen for dramatic effect, Winston Churchill behind the scenes was not the type of person who was exactly inspiring. He was prone to being intemperate and disinhibited, an unabashed eccentric who it is hard to imagine could survive today’s social media.

Darkest Hour, from Joe Wright who directed the wonderful film Atonement, is about a low point at the beginning of WWII when Britain was at its most vulnerable.

Who would be leader? Should the country broker for peace? The film focuses on how Churchill became Britain’s Prime Minister in the dark early months of the war, when how he led it to victory over the next five gruelling years is the more familiar story.

Churchill had always been a controversial figure, dividing political opinion, until he spoke of course, or wrote. There were numerous books and newspaper articles as he languished in the political wilderness while Hitler rose to power.

His appointment as PM seemed like an act of desperation, in the absence of anyone else prepared to take the job. While others were unwilling to take the lead, he could at least unite parliament.

Appeasement appeared to be the only option in 1940 and a peace treaty was possible, brokered through Mussolini. It even seemed an attractive safer option, as the British people could hardly be expected to give up another generation of their young.

It is fascinating to see in this fine film how difficult it was for Churchill in the first weeks of office to actually turn down the offer of a peace deal with Hitler. Darkest Hour concentrates the mind on that moment at the crossroads when Britain very nearly went under the wave of the fascism that was engulfing Europe.

The dedication and zeal that we have become accustomed to from actor Gary Oldman dominates the screen in his central role, as it should. It is a remarkable, immersive performance, and a feat of endurance to appreciate when we understand how long it took to apply the prosthetics in the morning and carry the weight for the rest of the day’s shoot.

But does the performance provide much more insight into Churchill’s personality? Perhaps not. Albert Finney also portrayed Churchill very convincingly in the recent The Gathering Storm.

The appearance of Ben Mendelsohn, however, as King George VI, that other wartime leader who was also loved, was a welcome surprise. Mendelsohn once again shows range and depth.

To move the action out of dusty rooms and corridors of power full of indistinguishable men in suits, Wright takes the camera into London’s streets. Some signature long tracking shots capture the daily life that must go on: the commuters, the shoppers and the vendors—and the three boys larking around in Hitler masks.

A shorthand for showing how Churchill understood the mood of the people was his relationship with his staff, especially those intimately connected with events that he had a hand in directing.

However, in the fictional sequence in which he nips down to the Underground and takes the train to Whitehall to gauge public opinion or, more to the point, to confirm his understanding of it, the film makes an awkward turn. Churchill musters a straw poll that today’s politicians would die for, but the film suffers a minor lapse in credibility.

Leaving off where the recent Christopher Nolan film Dunkirk begins, Darkest Hour closes around the time a little armada of citizen boats sets out across the Channel to rescue hundreds of thousands of troops trapped on the beach in France. It’s a stirring sight against a background of white cliffs that signifies a general resolve, and worth contemplating that the event might quite easily have never taken place.

Rated PG, 2 hours 5 minutes

4 Stars

Also published at the Canberra Critics Circle and broadcast on ArtSound FM 92.7

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