Mid-last year, I turned 50 years old! And to add to all the real life goals and challenges that that brings, I’ve created at least one as it relates to movies and this blog–watch a film I’ve never seen before which came out in each year of my life (thus the “Old-New” terminology), and then write a bit about it. This is Post #25. Spoilers ahead.
Directed by Joe Wright
Release Date: November 22, 2017
My age then: 47 years old
What it is about: As the Germany advances across Europe in the early days of World War II, Winston Churchill somewhat unexpectedly becomes the Prime Minister, to a mixed response from parliament, his party, and the King. Churchill faces great political pressure to enter into peace negotiations with Hitler, but struggles against it with every part of himself. Ultimately, he overcomes and leads his country to dedicated resistance and refusal to give in in any way.
Starring Gary Oldman as Winston Churchill, Kristin Scott Thomas as Winston’s wife Clementine, Lily James as his secretary Elizabeth Layton, Stephen Dillane as Viscount Hallifax, Ronald Pickup as Neville Chamberlain, and Ben Mendelsohn as King George VI. Featuring two actors from the 1990’s Pride and Prejudice in more minor roles: David Bamber (Mr. Collins) and Benjamin Whitrow (Mr. Bennet). David Straithairn makes a minor voice cameo as President Franklin Roosevelt over a phone.
My impressions of this movie before I watched it: I had the impression that the movie was good, and that was about it. I knew it was about Winston Churchill, of course, and had heard that Gary Oldman had done a good job in the role.
Reality: Well, “good job” turns out to be a massive understatement.
Gary Oldman has always been one of those chameleon-like actors who can thoroughly transforms himself for the roles that he is taking on, and the guy has racked up plenty of impressive appearances…
…but I’ve never seen anything like his work in The Darkest Hour.
With a personality as big as Churchill’s, it’d have been easy for the performance to be all bluster and mannerisms, but Oldman immerses himself in the character and generates a fully three dimensional human being. We see Churchill both raging and cheerful, at his most broken and at his most confident, supremely proud and deeply humiliated…and it all feels real and authentic and fully developed.
And of course Oldman is surrounded by a good supporting cast–I particularly enjoyed seeing Ben Mendelsohn as the King of England, and Stephen Dillane and Ronald Pickup as Churchill’s political nemeses. Churchill’s relationship with these three characters is really where the movie’s plot and central conflict lies. Together, they represent a nation that is in deeply fearful and insecure about the future. With the benefit of living on this side of history, it’s easy to forget how unsettling the advance of the Nazi war machine must have been, and how plausible and even sensible the idea of negotiating a surrender would have seemed to so many people.
Joe Wright’s direction and Anthony McCarten’s script do a great job bringing all this together. There are some occasional flashes to the battlefront to give the visuals a different flavor, but the main drama is really in the chambers where Churchill’s inner circle meets. The tension in those chambers is crackling, and it is seems amazing that any person could withstand the pressure that it represents. A lot of the movie surrounds the decisions that resulted in the famous Dunkirk evacuation–again, something in hindsight that is easy to support when one knows it largely succeeded, but in the time of uncertainty shown in Darkest Hour, still represents a bold and potentially foolhardy decision.
The climax of the movie shows Churchill finding his confidence and conviction in a rapid-fire series of energetic scenes. He confers with the British people on the tube, he gains the support of his outer cabinet, he tells his inner circle where it’s at, and then he makes one of the powerful recorded speeches in history in Parliament. It’s a powerful climax to the film to watch as Churchill (as one of the characters says, and in real life, a journalist said much later), “mobilize the English language and sent it into battle.”
So…when you get down to it, what did I think? Like all historical dramas, there is a lot in Darkest Hour that is fictional. But it is excellent and compelling fiction, with the story of Winston Churchill staying true to his convictions amongst a sea of opposition paralleling that of the Britain, holding fast as the last of defense against the overwhelming forces of Germany and its allies. It may not be completely accurate but it is a great movie.
See here for the Master List.