Film Review: Darkest Hour (2017)
Directed by: Joe Wright
Review by: Belle McIntyre
This tense, densely packed film is a dramatization of a month in 1940 that begins with the reluctant elevation of Winston Churchill (Gary Oldham) to Prime Minister of Great Britain during World War II. France is about to fall and Britain is on the fence about whether to continue to fight, in spite of the fact that they are in terrible jeopardy, or to negotiate peace with Hitler. Neville Chamberlain (Ronald Pickup) has been drummed out of power, yet there is anything but unanimity on his replacement by Churchill. King George VI (Ben Mendelsohn) and Viscount Halifax (Stephen Dillane) are thoroughly appalled by Churchill and find him enormously flawed, but they are overruled.
Churchill finds himself between a rock and a hard place - with a weak constituency behind him and the opposition party, as well as all of the military against him. Not to mention, he is himself is insecure. The country has been completely misled about the status of Europe vis a vis the Germans. The official position is that the war is going well and Britain and the troops are reasonably safe. The truth, however, is dire. The fall of France is imminent and the Allied forces are cornered on the shores of Dunkirk by overwhelming numbers of German troops with no logical possibility of being evacuated. It is a potentially catastrophic defeat for Britain in particular and ultimately the rest of Europe.
The tension is palpably rendered with fast pacing as Churchill, who never seems to sleep, and always has a cigar in his mouth and a drink in his hand, as he charges around his office, barking orders and bullying his minions and staff. His first hire is Elizabeth Layton (Lilly James) to be his typist. His manners are abrupt and his demands are exacting. The camera never leaves Churchill, following him plowing down the dreary corridors of the warren of subterranean offices, all the while dictating to Miss Layton or giving orders to whoever is trying to keep up with him. And, while he has taken a firm stand against negotiating with the Nazis, the only alternative seems to be total annihilation. And time is not on his side.
His relentless efforts to come up with a viable solution are all being shot down as the clock is ticking. His bold audacity in public and his ability to convey confidence and certainty is contrasted with his private angst and self-doubt, which can only be alleviated by the calm, wise, and extraordinarily supportive words of his devoted and resolute wife, Clemmie. This is a tour de force by Gary Oldham who has mastered all of the ticks, mannerisms and vocal pyrotechnics down to the nth degree. As he storms and rages like a magnificent rogue elephant, he is never anything short of completely convincing and compelling. The audience is swept up in the tension and drama of the moment, which became, arguably, the turning point of the war. In the end, the film turns on the power of words to inspire, thrill, and to motivate. After Churchill’s “never surrender” speech - his most famous and consequential speech to the Parliament, Halifax sums it up perfectly. “He has mobilized the English language and sent it into battle.