One person can indeed make a difference. Case in point is British Prime Minister Winston Churchill. When Adolf Hitler’s blitzkrieg was blazing across Europe, the French army was in retreat, and British soldiers were trapped on the beach at Dunkirk; Churchill faced fear and doubt and fought on.
The feature film Darkest Hour chronicles Churchill’s (Gary Oldman) life from right before taking the reigns of the prime minister post through the evacuation of Dunkirk. The story begins with the resignation of Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain (Ronald Pickup) who had sought peace with Hitler through a policy of appeasement. That strategy didn’t work as Hitler went on to invade Poland and other nations. British political parties were trying to agree on a new prime minister. Viscount Halifax (Stephen Dillane) was offered the position but declined. The second choice candidate who was palatable to all sides was Churchill. However, some British politicians, including Chamberlain, stood ready to pull their support for Churchill at any time and were even plotting against him.
Be Careful What You Wish for
Churchill had coveted the prime minister position for years, but had several black marks against him including his military leadership during World War I’s Gallipoli campaign. He would now get his desired post at the worst possible moment. Veteran actor Gary Oldman completely and amazing morphs into the Churchill character, finely replicating his voice, range of emotions, and even his gait. Oldman has been nominated for best actor for his role as Churchill by the Golden Globe, Screen Actors Guild (SAG), and Critics Choice awards.
King George VI (Ben Mendelsohn) wasn’t pleased that he would have to work with Churchill as prime minister. The initial coldness is evidenced in the scene where Churchill formally presents himself to the king in a private meeting. Churchill and the king speak to each other about ten feet apart. In Britain the ruling monarch and the prime minister are required to meet once a week. The king asks for a 4 p.m. meeting on a certain day. Churchill says that time is not good for him, because he naps each day at 4 p.m. The king, astounded by the answer, asks “Is that permissible?” Churchill replies that it is probably not permissible, but that it is necessary because he works until late at night. They agree to meet for lunch one day a week. Churchill slowly walks forward to kiss the king’s ring and then slowly backs away before bowing and leaving.
At the beginning of his time as prime minister Churchill has to keep his detractors (who want a peace treaty with Hitler) at bay, urge the French forces to continue fighting, and figure out how to get over 300,000 trapped British and allied soldiers off the beach at Dunkirk.
Strong Female Supporters
Luckily, Churchill was supported by two strong and supportive women. His wife Clementine (Kristin Scott Thomas) was someone who, when needed, reprimanded him if he was too curt with someone, and supported him when he was down and needed a lift. A strong counterweight of the film is the tender scenes between Thomas and Oldman. They shine as a loving, playful couple.
Also lending strong support to Churchill was his personal secretary Elizabeth Layton, who in the film, survives a very rough first day on the job, but goes on to forge a strong bond with him. Layton would become an integral part of his staff. The role is played quite nicely by the talented doe-eyed beauty Lily James who was on screens this summer in Baby Driver as the waitress/girlfriend, Deborah.
Another familiar face that fans of the PBS series “Mr Selfridge” will recognize is Samuel West who played journalist Frank Edwards. In Darkest Hour he portrays Churchill deputy Sir Anthony Eden.
Darkest Hour is beautifully filmed by Joe Wright, director and Bruno Delbonnel, director of photography. Interesting shots include long continuous pans of London street scenes from Churchill’s car, innovative typewriter shots, and a long pull back shot of Churchill walking quickly towards the camera. There’s also some creative CGI shots of bombs dropping, a trapped garrison, and boats headed for Dunkirk to evacuate the allied soldiers. The cast and crew did, as the Brits say, a brilliant job with this film.
Darkest Hour is an engaging film that offers a deeper historical look at a brief period during the war. It is also a rich character study of Churchill at his finest hour.
Rick Handler is the executive producer of Entertainment Central.