MAY 1940 IS ENGLAND’S DARKEST HOUR, BUT WAS IT CHURCHILL’S FINEST?
Whereas the summertime film Churchill depicts a prime minister ignored by Allied military commander Dwight Eisenhower in 1944, and Winston Churchill: The Wilderness Years (1981) traces the decade after he was booted from a Cabinet position, Darkest Hour focuses on the days in May 1940 before and after Churchill’s rise to become prime minister. (The docudrama even puts dates on the screen as the days pass.)
When German forces blitzkrieg through France, the opposition Labour Party demands that Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain (played by Ronald Pickup) must step down so that a unified coalition of both parties can guide Britain’s efforts in the war. But Labour will only accept Churchill (Gary Oldman) as the new prime minister despite Chamberlain’s preference for Foreign Secretary Viscount Halifax (Stephen Dillane) and disdain for Churchill. What then ensues is a plot by Chamberlain to undermine Churchill in order to elevate Halifax to the prime minister position by insisting that Halifax should negotiate peace with Nazi Germany with the mediation of Italy. Chamberlain counts on King George VI (Ben Mendelson), a good friend of Halifax, to pressure the new prime minister. Recalling Churchill’s Gallipoli disaster during World War I, military officers at first discount Churchill’s advice to hold back the Wehrmacht’s advance because the German advance demonstrates almost invincibility.
Much of Darkest Hour focuses on Churchill’s personality. He drinks, smokes, naps, mumbles at times, seems a bit senile, and displays a very bad temper; some view him as unpredictable and therefore frightening. Only his wife, Clementine Churchill (Kristin Scott Thomas), is able to comfort him out of his dour moods. But he also shows an affinity for the feelings of his secretary, Elizabeth Layton (Lily James), and to passengers whom he encounters while riding the subway one day before his most famous parliamentary address. After admitting to the king that he has nobody to talk to frankly, the two bond and mutually agree that the king should not flee to Canada, as some advisers suggest.
Churchill is usually remembered as the one who delivered the most eloquent speeches of any politician in the world, past or present, and he delivers several during the film, demonstrating a way with words that demonstrates considerable familiarity with poetry. The most important speech comes at the end, when he demolishes the argument for peace negotiations and instead inspires parliament and the nation to show courage and determination to defeat the enemy despite seemingly unsurmountable odds. Titles at the end provide more historical context, including his brilliant suggestion to dispatch civilian boats to Dunkirk, where 300,000 British soldiers are rescued from the German advance, as depicted in the midsummer 2017 action film Dunkirk.
Darkest Hour, directed by Joe Wright, has been nominated by the Political Film Society as best film exposé of 2017. MH