Synopsis – During the early days of World War II, the fate of Western Europe hangs on the newly-appointed British Prime Minister Winston Churchill, who must decide whether to negotiate with Hitler, or fight on against incredible odds.
My Take – Films based on true stories flood the cinemas all year long, not that I am complaining, as being a history buff myself, I enjoy films about real life figures especially men and political figures that were involved in moments that impacted our history. If I could pick out some men/women for such kind of list, Winston Churchill, a former Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, would definitely be on that. While the archives of history attest to the unique stature of this political figure, yet considering the amount of high profile films produced about him, is there anything more to know? Well apparently director Joe Wright does think so, as his film here, offers to provide a fresh insight into Britain’s greatest leader. Depending on how you look at this film, it’s worth mentioning that when reflecting on the better films of 2017, this Joe Wright film does find itself a place among them. From a powerful narrative to its well-written dialogue, this is a film that transports you into its time period set during the hard political times and keeps you intrigued throughout. Not only is this a riveting account of one of the most important moments of the Second World War, but it’s also an exhilarating drama that goes beyond being a simple biography by bringing humor, energy and passion to every moment. Although this experience may be a slow burn for some viewers, a stunning central performance by Gary Oldman, a confident and passionate direction from Joe Wright, along with a brilliant screenplay from start to finish, in my opinion, this one is simply an exceptional film.
The story follows Winston Churchill (Gary Oldman) in the May of 1940, during World War II. As the Nazis are beginning to take control of much of Western Europe, a dissatisfied parliament convinces Neville Chamberlain (Ronald Pickup), the prime minister to resign, only to be succeeded by Churchill, who despite his poor reputation seemed like the right choice of his party at the time. However, Churchill’s unorthodox and eccentric ways of conducting politics cause much irritation among his fellow ministers, especially Viscount Halifax (Stephen Dillane) and King George VI (Ben Mendelsohn), who fear that he may not be the right man to stave off what seems like an imminent Nazi conquest of England, and urge him to request the Italian Prime Minister, Benito Mussolini, to negotiate a peace term with Hitler in order to prevent an all-out invasion. Nevertheless, Churchill is convinced that making deals with Hitler will lead to the end of British independence despite the fact that the entire British Army of 300,000 troops are trapped on the coast of Dunkirk. With only a few people including his loyal wife, Clementine (Kristin Scott Thomas), and his devoted secretary, Elizabeth Layton (Lily James) by his side, Churchill must swallow his pride to decide whether to negotiate with a tyrant or continue to fight on. Director Joe Wright seems to have an affinity for period pictures (Pride & Prejudice, Atonement, Anna Karenina) so one would think that this WWII drama would fit well. It’s also inevitable that this film will be mentioned with the director Christopher Nolan‘s summer blockbuster Dunkirk, since some of it deals with setting up the evacuation of British troops from that French port, you could say that this film provides the background for Dunkirk, and that it does, but it also provides so much more, as I was pulled into this film from the start and was never pulled out. The spaces and the silence between words and gestures were filled with raw emotion (some will think it is slow and boring, but I couldn’t disagree more). In this day of quick cuts and fast, CGI-Laden special effects, it is nice to watch a slow burn drama with interesting characters unfold before you to tell a real and necessary story. The subject matter will clearly divide audiences thanks to its pat view of history: UK as the righteous hero and everyone else as inept — Italians and French losers, Germans the evil fascists, US completely unmentioned, Canada the quiet prairie for monarchs to escape to — in the still-somewhat- mysterious Dunkirk incident where Hitler could easily have tightened the noose and pushed UK over the edge of what was evidently a crushing defeat, but somehow allowed them the leeway to escape by civilian boats. There’s next to no mention of the French army that stood its ground and valiantly sacrificed itself to win a couple of days for the Brits on the beach. When telling a story as well-known as that of Winston Churchill and the Second World War, being both exciting and historically accurate isn’t always easy, yet, writer Anthony McCarten & director Joe Wright deliver the historical drama with great success. While it’s ambitious to a fault, its overall a great story of a leader, who’s over-the-top & risky decisions led him to create history of its own.
This is a personal story about a man in great power & how his courage & at times, humor, led him to become a leader to follow. Not only was Churchill a complicated man with many flaws, the film does a good job of showing that there was reason to doubt him, mainly as his record was mixed and had done a decent amount of flip-flopping to get to his spot. Yes, the film does tell of the extreme intensity of the early days of the war, the political maneuvering in Westminster as Churchill was appointed Prime Minister, and the very real and impending threat that the fall of Britain could very well mean the end of freedom-loving Western civilization, which are all absolutely fascinating to watch unfold, but they’re all parts of history that you arguably already know very well. That’s why the film’s decision to bring a brilliant sense of humor and a strong passion to proceedings is so effective. The importance of the events being portrayed on screen is never downplayed, and there are indeed some very intense and emotionally powerful moments, but there’s so much more to this film than just history, something that made it such a refreshing watch compared to how most Oscar-bait biographies turn out. While the film praises Churchill’s bulldog spirit in fighting the fight against the Nazis, it’s always keen to show him in a slightly brighter light, almost as if he was a man who stumbled into the most important job in history by coincidence. In that, there are so many genuinely hilarious scenes as Churchill’s quirky personality clashes with the more uptight politicians of Westminster, a part of the film that I felt not only made everything more entertaining, but helped to give the film an incredibly refreshing energy, allowing me to see Churchill in a very relatable, personal light rather than just as a historical figure from a textbook. Director Joe Wright also keeps most of the narrative indoors and makes excellent use of the claustrophobic War Rooms, mirroring Churchill’s feelings of entrapment as his own party close in on him as well as Hitler’s Germany. Rarely without his trademark cigar or a glass of something alcoholic in his hand, the film shows a more human side to the Churchill we usually see portrayed on film, or television. Indeed, this one even laughs at bum gags. Amidst the bluster and occasional passionate outbursts of fury directed at his War Cabinet, there are moments of intimacy between Churchill and his secretary Elizabeth Layton, and between Churchill and King George, where their silence speaks volumes. These scenes of poignancy are much needed and offer a rare glimpse into Churchill’s insecurities. Personally I felt the dialogue kept the film moving at a very brisk pace, especially a specific sequence involving Churchill riding the subway. If you ever find yourself bored when watching this film, I believe this one scene will win you over. I was truly moved by the way that scene played out. However, I do have a few complaints, for example the ending includes a very emotional scene that is very effective but has limited to no basis in historical fact. That’s fine as it underscores some pretty powerful stuff, but it borders on being too sappy. I get why it was there, but you could feel the film pushing the limits between genuine and over-romantic. Plus, even though throughout the film, Joe Wright‘s direction remains solid, he relies too a bit too much on slow motion techniques, long tracking shots, and never-ending aerial photography, which after a while, becomes a bit tiresome. However, he assembles a fine cast that take these stock characters and breathes life into their stereotypical roles. Sold as the actor’s unrecognizable turn as Churchill, Gary Oldman‘s performance here has been the center of the advertising since the film went into production. Rightfully so Oldman is remarkable and virtually unrecognizable due to some extraordinary prosthetics and make-up. His posture, voice and mannerisms have been expertly executed with a skill that only an actor of Oldman‘s caliber could achieve, considering the many terrific roles he has played throughout his career. Here, Oldman is as absolutely spell binding as you would expect him to be, as without his whole-hearted interpretation of a man defending his unpopular position as a war hawk during a time when the world prayed for peace, the film could not have achieve its overall impact. The supporting actors are also impressive in their own right, especially Ben Mendelssohn who is equally amazing, along with Lilly James as the adorable secretary and the scene stealing Kristen Scott Thomas as Winston’s wife. Stephen Dillane and Ronald Pickup also play solid counterparts to Oldman‘s Churchill. On the whole, ‘Darkest Hour’ is an incredibly riveting and engrossing historical drama uplifted by a solid performance from the brilliant Gary Oldman.
Directed – Joe Wright
Rated – PG13
Run Time – 125 minutes