Should I Watch..? 'Darkest Hour'
What's the big deal?
Darkest Hour is a dramatic war biopic film released in 2017 and is a fictionalised account of Winston Churchill's first few weeks as Prime Minister during the Second World War. Written by award-winning screenwriter Anthony McCarten, the film stars Gary Oldman as Churchill and is supported by Kristen Scott Thomas, Lily James, Stephen Dillane, Ronald Pickup and Ben Mendelsohn. The film was a critical success with many calling Oldman's performance the best of his long career and sure enough, the actor finally secured a Best Actor Oscar for the role. The film also proved popular with audiences who helped the film earn a worldwide total of over $150 million - $33.4 million of that was earned in the UK alone. However, the film has come in for criticism for historical inaccuracies as well as a possible pro-Brexit bias.
What's it about?
In May 1940, the British Government is trying to stave off the opposition Labour Party's motion for Conservative Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain to resign following his failure to challenge Adolf Hitler and the rise of the German Nazi forces. Chamberlain prepares to hand power over to his colleague Viscount Halifax but the Viscount declines, claiming that the only leader the Opposition would tolerate is Winston Churchill despite his past political failures and abrasive nature. Nevertheless, Churchill is invited to Buckingham Palace by King George VI and agrees to become Prime Minister.
At first, Churchill goes against all prevailing advice by issuing a radio address hailing the success of the campaign on the Western Front. But the true is more horrifying - the Germans are sweeping across Western Europe with Belgium and Holland falling under Nazi control and the French offering little to no resistance. Worse still, the British Army are trapped in northern France with no chance of escape and surrounded by incoming German forces. Faced with the possibility of having to surrender and negotiate a peace treaty with Hitler, Churchill struggles to decide what course of action should be undertaken with countless lives at stake...
Kristen Scott Thomas
Sir Anthony Eden
King George VI
Release Date (UK)
12th January, 2018
Biography, Drama, History
Best Actor (Oldman), Best Hair & Makeup
Academy Award Nominations
Best Film, Best Cinematography, Best Costume Design, Best Production Design
What's to like?
A lot of drama films can feel slow or uninvolving, often due to the lack of a decent narrative hook. Thankfully, that isn't the case with Darkest Hour which puts Churchill in the unusual position of being an underdog who somehow overcomes the odds (portrayed by his peace-seeking political opponents) and comes good in the end. In the UK, Churchill has become an almost mythical figure - the embodiment of British war-time spirit and fierce defender of the nation in the face of seemingly unstoppable Nazi aggression. What the film does is show Churchill as a man plagued by doubts, beset by problems on all sides and struggling to repay his wife Clemmie who has found herself trapped in a loving but flawed marriage.
Unsurprisingly, the film belongs to Oldman who utterly transforms himself into Britain's war-time hero - not just due to the makeup and prosthesis but by adopting the man's mannerisms and speech. It's reminiscent of Eddie Redmayne's uncanny portrayal of Professor Stephen Hawking in The Theory Of Everything (coincidentally also written by McCarten) and while Oldman's performance might feel studied and controlled, it's certainly good enough to justify his Best Actor Oscar and the many other recognitions he earned in the role. He's also well supported by the likes of Dillane and Mendelsohn but I felt the film gives the two female leads only half a story to grapple with. Thomas and James provide some heartbreaking moments in the film but the obsession with Churchill means that we don't see them enough or finish off their character arcs which provide some relief from the heavyweight politics going on in the War Room.
- Oldman spent a year studying Churchill and his mannerisms including his fondness for smoking cigars. Oldman later revealed that he smoked up to 12 cigars a day during the shoot (about £30'000 worth) and developed nicotine poisoning.
- The film marks the final screen appearance of Benjamin Whitrow who passed away before the film's release at the age of 80. Since the start of his career in 1963, he was most famous for playing Mr Bennett in the BBC's adaptation of Pride And Prejudice and voicing Fowler in Chicken Run.
- Oldman is the sixth actor from the Harry Potter franchise to portray Churchill. Michael Gambon, Timothy Spall, Robert Hardy, Brendan Gleeson and David Ryall had all played Churchill on film or in TV movies previously.
What's not to like?
Unlike The Theory Of Everything, Darkest Hour takes plenty of liberties with the truth in its pursuit of reinforcing Churchill's legend and image of being the sole person in Europe determined to face Hitler head-on. Among those criticising the film's narrative are accusations that it was Clement Atlee and the opposition Labour Party's fierce resistance to Hitler and Nazism that played as an important part as Churchill's leadership as well as sources showing that most ordinary people were not that inspired by his speeches. The scene on the Underground specifically is often criticised for depicting Churchill as "a tube-travelling, minority-adoring genius" when the reality was quite different.
I didn't like the fact that the movie teases us with other stories for both Clemmie and Miss Layton but never stopped to examine them further. Churchill's neglect of his family and the impact of the death of Layton's brother (which, again, didn't happen) don't appear to have affected Churchill's thought-process whatsoever which is disappointing. But the most troubling aspect of the movie is its timing - in a post-Brexit Britain when division is rife and the country is still unsure of its relationship with Europe, Churchill's stoic nature and determination comes across as very pro-Brexit and reinforces the idea that we are better off on our own, etc. This is, of course, nonsense (I am a staunch Remainer because I understand how much damage Brexit will do to us as a country) but for those who believe in the abandonment of the EU, this film will go down better than a pint of warm bitter.
Should I watch it?
It might be a bit stagey and definitely more fantasy than fact but Darkest Hour is a compulsive and absorbing film that rides the coat-tails of its incredible leading man's performance. It looks and feels authentic and benefits from some imaginative cinematography but it keeps the war at a safe distance while basking in Churchill's apparent greatness. But for all that, the film is still an enjoyable watch thanks to Oldman's amazing portrayal.
Great For: Brexit supporters, Oldman's Oscar ambitions, revisionists
Not So Great For: historians, female characters, lung cancer rates
What else should I watch?
Weirdly, Darkest Hour was one of two films released in 2017 that featuring Churchill in office. The other - Churchill - starred Brian Cox as the titular character in the run-up to D-Day, the 1944 Normandy landings which changed the course of World War 2. However, that film would be ultimately overshadowed by Darkest Hour and most critics were unimpressed. Other cinematic outings for the former Prime Minister include the 1964 documentary The Finest Hours and the somewhat scattershot comedy Churchill: The Hollywood Years with perhaps the least convincing actor to play the role, Christian Slater.
McCarten is on something of a roll at the moment. After finding success with The Theory Of Everything and this movie, he followed them up with another semi-biographical film with an Oscar-winning performance at the centre - Bohemian Rhapsody follows the rock band Queen from their formation to their stand-out performance at Live Aid in 1985. Rami Malek won the Best Actor Oscar as Freddie Mercury just as Oldman had the year before although the film was also criticised for a number of historical inaccuracies. His next film - The Pope - is due out later in 2019.
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© 2019 Benjamin Cox