‘Darkest Hour’ brings historical heroism to the big screen


Courtesy http://www.focusfeatures.com/darkesthour

Gary Oldman as Winston Churchill in “The Darkest Hour.”

The year is 1940. Europe is boiling. France has fallen to the German advance, its British defenders chased to the French coastal town of Dunkirk. A cavernous room of sharply dressed MPs howl for the resignation of Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain after his failed attempts at appeasing Hitler. At a roundtable meeting to choose a successor, the doomed PM gives final remarks to his long faced advisors.

“Well, gentlemen, there’s only one candidate, one man the opposition will accept.”

The table groans. Winston Churchill would become Prime Minister the next day.

And so begins “Darkest Hour,” a biopic of Churchill’s first weeks in Britain’s highest office. As Churchill assumes power, he and his new cabinet are tasked with saving what remained of the Britain’s military at Dunkirk. His apparent contempt towards peace negotiations as a solution to the situation puts him at odds with King George VI, and his own advisors, Chamberlain and his cunning lackey, Viscount Halifax. Their political maneuverings to depose the new Prime Minister make for a captivating subplot (but one that would never come to fruition in film, or in history).

Of course, the outcome could have been spoiled by an eighth grade history textbook. Dunkirk is evacuated, and Britain wins the war.

Joe Wright’s greatest decision as director was casting Gary Oldman, whose evocative portrayal of the titular character gave the film gravitas and kept the viewer interested despite already knowing the ending. Oldman’s Churchill was an acerbic yet ponderous soul for whom soberness was a rarity, who spouted off witticisms in between puffs on his cigar. He deftly navigated his character’s stark duality as a man who confidently lies to the public about supposed allied victories while also harboring doubts about his own hawkish posture. It was an intimate look inside one of history’s most infamous personalities.

His star performance was accentuated by expressive cinematography that used manipulations of light and shadow to create striking contrasts, shrouds of darkness forging a tangible manifestation of the lone hero fighting the world. Some of the most beautiful scenes seemed to be illuminated by a single bulb, forming an isolated light in a vignette of darkness. The impeccable lighting of this film even made an elegant portrait out of Churchill talking on the phone (with FDR).

While the scenes were three dimensional works of art, the supporting cast was decidedly less so. It was as though the producers found any savaging of the quintessential Briton to be unpalatable. His wife, Clementine Churchill (Kristin Scott Thomas) and his secretary Elizabeth Layton (Lily James) turned out to be token cheerleaders, only existing to heap praise on the lead role. It was a shame that the only female characters were squandered in hero worship. Even the notable exceptions to the chorus of love—Chamberlain and Halifax—eventually acquiesced after a couple of Churchill’s rousing speeches.

The People of Britain, who Churchill encounters in an awfully contrived subway scene, come across more as jingoistic fools than brave patriots. Their fight-to-the-end mentality and unwavering belief in Churchill, even during the most dire straits of the war, feels uncomfortable to modern sensibilities and is an unfortunate blemish in the plot. While the real Churchill enjoyed huge public support during the war, the total adoration featured in Darkest Hour is an absurd distortion of history.

King George VI (Ben Mendelssohn) is a frosty fellow whose defining characteristic seemed to be resigned fatalism. He initially distrusts Churchill, but this aversion subsides into disaffected ennui by the end of the film.

“Darkest Hour” broke no molds, but it never needed to. It was a classic story of one man against the world, set against a historical backdrop. Gary Oldman’s portrayal brought historical heroism to the big screen and introduced us to a side of Churchill we have never seen before—and one we will want to see all over again.