Darkest Hour is a superb period piece backgrounding the political warring in Britain preceding the Dunkirk evacuation. Gary Oldman stuns with one of the great performances in cinema in a portrayal of Churchill that will likely never be bettered.
Darkest Hour is set in mid-1940 during a month-long period of extreme crisis for both Britain and newly appointed Prime Minister Winston Churchill (Gary Oldman). Hitler’s forces have rampaged through Europe like an aggressive cancer and the entire British army is trapped at Dunkirk, with Nazi troops closing in from all sides. A German invasion of England is thus a gravely real and imminent possibility.
The parliament is in chaos. When PM Neville Chamberlain (Ronald Pickup) is dumped, Churchill is reluctantly appointed. Leadership is desperately required, but few, including King George (an excellent Ben Mendelson), have confidence in the eccentric, cigar-puffing, daytime-drinking Churchill, who is dogged by the disastrous Galipolli campaign he orchestrated in WW1 and his reputation as an arrogant maverick and bully.
Indeed, his gruffness and impatience with his new secretary Elizabeth (Lily James) has her departing the room in tears on her first day. It is left to Churchill’s wife Clementine (Kristen Scott Thomas – terrif) to salve the poor girl’s wounds with some kind words, and bring her irascible hubby to heel with some sharp ones.
These types of behind-the-scenes interactions with the two women are pivotal in humanising the Churchill character, and also provide some moments of much-needed comic relief – such as when Elizabeth timidly points out to her frowning then chuckling boss that his first public V-for-victory finger sign, emblazoned on the front page of the nation’s newspaper, is delivered back-handed, and thus likely to be interpreted as “up yer bum!”
Churchill faces a baptism of fire as PM. There is the precarious situation at Dunkirk for which he must try to find a solution. And he is not only at war with Hitler, but also with his military advisors and senior colleagues. He advocates standing on principle against the Nazi scourge and if necessary fighting to the last man; his pragmatically-minded advisors urge him to stave off the threat of invasion by negotiating a peace deal with Hitler, effectively abandoning Europe to the Reich. Much of the drama of the film derives from this ideological tug-of-war between Churchill and his adversaries. Of course, we know who prevails, but it’s the how that matters.
Key to this is a scene late in the film that is slightly hokey but also symbolically striking and the emotional high point, in which a tormented Churchill, on the edge of bowing to his advisors’ peace negotiation option, boards a tube train and strikes up a conversation with his stunned fellow passengers that leaves him in no doubt that his “never surrender” stance is shared by the masses.
The rest, as they say, is history, culminating in Churchill’s famous “We shall fight them on the beaches” speech to the nation. Stirring stuff, superbly managed.
In detailing the background to the Dunkirk evacuation and bringing to public attention a short but crucial period of WW2 history, Darkest Hour is an important film, not to mention an absorbing drama. It is truly extraordinary, though, for its portrayal of Churchill. Working off some brilliant writing, Gary Oldman, virtually unrecognizable beneath some magical makeup and expertly fashioned prosthetics, delivers a performance for the ages. They can start etching his name on the Best Actor Oscar right now.
Movie Website: http://www.thedarkesthour.com.au/home/
Australian release date: Darkest Hour in Australian cinemas from 11 Jan 2017
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