Jen and I had drastically different reactions to Gary Oldman’s Anglophilic Oscar-bait movie, Darkest Hour. For various excellent reasons, Jen had reservations about it. For various other reasons, I liked it. Because of that, we thought we’d split the review into two parts, and you can sort out for yourselves whether it’s worth spending money on. As always, we don’t hesitate to mention spoilers.
While leaving the theater last night, I kept thinking how oddly one-dimensional this production was. It really brought very little to the table for me in terms of deconstructing Winston Churchill or one of the most pivotal moments of English History. Honestly it seems like the kind of film that would have been made 30 years ago.
In recent years there’s been a tendency to mythologize Churchill as an omniscient political savant – and I recognize I’m speaking as an American who really doesn’t know that much about him – but I kept feeling like this film bordered on Anglophile fanservice. I think it’s trying to do a lot of things at once: illustrate the aforementioned moment, depict Churchill in that moment, and introduce casual viewers like me to the political climate of the moment.
I couldn’t help but also comparing Churchill’s depiction with how he was presented in The Crown, which I watched recently. However an unfair comparison, it was still all I had to go on, and by all accounts it did the man more justice.
After some more thought, I realized the enormity of what was being shown and why I don’t get it. It’s because every English kid grows up hearing about this moment; again, it probably goes back to mythology. Just like we have kids’ books mythologizing Paul Revere and Abraham Lincoln (to our own historical chagrin at times), so does every English person know this story, probably whether they know it or not.
And honestly, the magnitude of what occurred was also escaping me, but Joe Wright put it right there on the screen in little glimpses: for example, when Churchill and Co. are flying over France to a political meeting with their French allies, Churchill looks down and realizes that the masses clogging the roads are actually refugees fleeing the Germans, and the reality of the German War Machine comes home to him. Other realities of war are illustrated in the pock-marked French countryside, or when he effectively sentences an entire garrison to death by sending a telegram to inform someone that they wouldn’t be evacuated.
What this movie is trying to do (for unappreciatives like me) is illustrate a debate that has probably been going on among English historians for decades: what Churchill was vs. what he did. And really, you could apply that conflict to any historical figure, once the flags have stopped waving and people start really going through the dirty laundry.
It worked for me
I liked Darkest Hour. I get every single one of Jen’s critiques of it and think they are valid, but at the same time, I found value in the movie, maybe despite myself.
Recently we’ve seen three war movies: Dunkirk, The Last Jedi, and Darkest Hour. I’d say that of these three, Dunkirk was the strongest pure war movie in terms of showing the terror and human toll of war, and Darkest Hour was the weakest. But was it a war movie?
I felt that the film was almost a small parlour drama about Winston Churchill and his battle with himself — how he had to push through a vast host of insecurities to fully embody his position as war-time prime minister, and push his country to resist Germany. I have to give props to Gary Oldman for carrying the movie, for successfully conveying all of the insecurity of such a well-known public figure, and also showing the subsequent hardening of his resolve.
The central focus of the plot was laid out by “Clemmy” (Clementine, Lady Churchill) at the beginning of the film: “I wish people would like you as much as I do” (paraphrased). She tasked Churchill with becoming kinder to people, including his secretary, the King of England, the people of England, and his own political party. By the end of the movie, Churchill has learned his lesson and became friends with the King, knows his secretary’s name, and even shook the hand of a black guy on the subway — and this shift in personality is apparently what saved England (and if you’re English, the ENTIRE WORLD) from Nazis. Okay, I found this part of the plot a little weak.
But I came into this movie fairly well-steeped in English history for an American, because one of my favorite genres is biographies of Englishwomen. I’ve read a lot of war-related English novels (let’s be honest, it’s hard for any English novel to not be in some way about the wars), but the most recent was Clementine: The Life of Mrs. Winston Churchill. I watched Darkest Hour with the weight of Clementine’s biography in my mind, and I feel as though I understood some of the subtext that (as Jen pointed out) every English person grows up knowing.
For example: Churchill was not always considered a successful and worthy politician. He lost a quarter-million Englishmen during WWI in Galipoli, and was dismissed from the War Council because of it. The choice to make him Prime Minister during the period that lead to WWII was not an obvious one, and the film conveyed extremely well the hesitance of the King and the Conservative party in his selection.
The film was as much about setting out all of these reservations to Churchill’s ascent to power, and Churchill’s battles to overcome it, than anything else. Galipoli was brought up as an indictment of Churchill’s decision-making skills when Viscount Halifax, pushing hard for a treaty with Germany via Mussolini, followed Churchill into a hallway after he stormed out of a War Council meeting.
“You failed England at Galipoli,” (paraphrased) Halifax said, questioning his desire to go to war. “HOW DARE YOU!” Churchill responded, and then proceeded to give his best Man On Internet Explaining Himself version of why he failed. It wasn’t his fault; someone else failed to follow through to support him in the battle. But in these scenes, the movie didn’t hesitate to show Churchill’s dark side, and his failures, to highlight how he overcame them to finally deliver his Dunkirk speech.
(This article at Forbes goes into his loss at Galipoli in excruciating detail.)
The speech itself was grand, one of those “This is an infamous moment in history that I finally get to see” scenes. Oldman delivered it with all of the humanity of an old man who isn’t at his finest power of oration, yet could build to a mighty steam when impassioned. I completely bought the humanity of Oldman’s Churchill, and was seduced by his words into seeing the total necessity of war against a megalomaniac. (Jen had a nice argument after the film about how she worried that it could justify war to our generation, and this point is valid.)
“He mobilized the English language and sent it into battle,” Halifax said of this speech, looking glum because he could no longer be in cahoots with Mussolini.
I also enjoyed the film’s subtle historic accuracy as conveyed through Lady Churchill: Kristen Scott-Thomas had obviously done her research, and imbued Lady Churchill with all of the strength and spirited energy written about in Clementine. She did it in tiny slivers of screen time, giving impact to moments such as when she cut through Churchill’s bluster and told him to be nice to people, or when she told him that their family was completely broke (Winston was terrible with money), and told him during a blunt toast to his new position in government that his kids suffered for years without a dad “for the sake of England.”
The final shot of Clementine in Darkest Hour shows her wearing a military uniform in a photo shoot while listening to Churchill’s Dunkirk speech. Why military uniform? Clementine marshalled the YMCA/YWCA of England to help properly feed and care for the people making munitions for the army throughout BOTH world wars.
It was a full-time occupation, and she did as much to care for her country as Churchill did. But of course, none of that is shown in the movie except for that one small moment of Clementine wearing that uniform. The New York Times does a good job of reviewing Clementine, and it’s worth reading to see a tiny glimpse of these unsung heroes of the wars.
Another moment of subtle historic accuracy: when the King of England comes to visit Churchill in his home to say, “I support you, let’s fight these bloody Germans,” (paraphrased), Churchill was sitting in what looked like a packed-up attic room. I realized afterwards that it’s simply a random bedroom with everything taken off the walls because Lady Churchill is slowly selling off their furniture to pay off their debts. Nice touch.
What else did I enjoy about this movie? I loved seeing the old buildings that housed parliament for centuries, the maze-like rooms in the basement where the War Council held their meetings, and the inside hallways of Buckingham Palace. Everything felt so dusty and sepia-toned and nostalgic, but also very real. I liked walking in this history for a while, and watching it play out like the best kind of British parlour drama.