Movie Review: Despite its Bleak Subject, Darkest Hour Will Lift Your Spirits

“You are strong because you are imperfect. You are wise because you have doubts.” Clemmie to Winston in Darkest Hour

Winston Churchill remains one of my all-time heroes so it was a must for me to see the latest Churchill film focusing on his early days as Prime Minister in May 1940: Darkest Hour.

Unusually I found myself sans offspring, and spent 2 hours in the cinema completely absorbed by this stunning movie. In fact, I was on the edge of my seat and the hairs on my arms were stood on end throughout most of it, as I was furnished with many facts that I had previously been ignorant of; illuminated beautifully with dramatic and cinematic flair by director Joe Wright, his cast and crew.

I was already a fan of Joe Wright, his version of Pride and Prejudice with Keira Knightly and Matthew Macfadyen has a special place in my heart, I very much enjoyed his cinematic version of Ian McEwan’s novel Atonement, and my son was an extra in PAN.

Kazuhiro Tsuji did an amazing job of making Gary Oldman unrecognisable (except perhaps a tad around the eyes), his facial prosthetics transformed the actor into an uncanny resemblance of the great leader.

There aren’t really any words adequate enough to praise Gary Oldman’s performance.

I think he was outstanding and gave the performance of a lifetime, well worthy of a coveted Oscar from the Academy, or a BAFTA from the British Film Academy for an actor in a leading role.

The spirit of Winston must have whispered to him and imbued him with the emotions he experienced at that desperate, turbulent time from far beyond the grave.

For me he perfectly captured Winston’s dogged demeanour, his bullish, bellicose mannerisms that cloaked his sensitive and kind nature, his courage of conviction, his private moments of anguish, unsurpassed oratory abilities, his inner metal, his fiery emotional side, his razor sharp wit and prolific intellect, his enduring love for Clementine; in short, the sum total of all his vices and brilliance that made him so human and relatable.

Gary Oldman himself talks about his reservations in playing such an iconic man that would be compared to other performances by a range of accomplished actors:

Kristin Scott Thomas is perfect as Clementine Churchill, his beautiful, elegant and long suffering wife, who admits in a congratulatory speech to Winston and their family on their first night in No. 10, that she knew she would always come second to his public life.

They raise their glasses to Winston and make a jocular family toast to, “Not buggering it up!”

There are a few touching scenes where Winston is feeling down on himself in the face of overwhelming problems, with the weight of the world (or at least the balance of power in the world), on his shoulders. Clemmie is his equal, his guiding star, the one person who is his rock as he faces impossible odds.

Lily James is wonderful as his sweet and loyal personal secretary, Miss Elizabeth Layton and Ben Mendelsohn is also perfect as the beleaguered and skeptical King George VI. In a meeting with Lord Halifax he asks: “Why have I been forced to send for Churchill? His record is a catastrophe.”

Their first formal, awkward meeting as Winston is invited to Buckingham Palace is acting at its best.

It is only after watching interviews with the key players that I discovered Ben is about as Australian as they come!

The film unfolds against a back drop of fear and panic running rife through the houses of Parliament, invoked by Hitler’s ruthless invasion of Europe, as well as personal and professional enmity from politicians in his own party, who attempt to thwart Winston at every turn.

The older, wiser, portly, but nonetheless still sprightly Winston is surrounded by enemies, both domestically and abroad; fighting battles on all fronts…

The magnitude of his task makes for jaw dropping viewing.

We begin to understand the impossible poison chalice that Winston Churchill had been given when the opposition party declared on 9th May 1940 that Neville Chamberlain had lost the confidence of the House and that they would support a new leader in coalition.

A shadowy House of Commons is in uproar as Chamberlain is ousted, and the camera comes to rest momentarily on an empty front bench seat, save for a Royal Naval Yacht Club cap.

Kingsley Woods leans over and asks Antony Eden, “Where’s Winston?” to which Eden’s sardonic reply comes, “ensuring his fingerprints are not on the murder weapon.”

That is the start of a fantastic screen play by Anthony McCarten, witty, clever and original (obviously littered with many of Winston’s own words throughout), and it more than does justice to the man and the events he is crucially caught up in.

The Conservatives make it obvious they want the Foreign Secretary, Viscount Halifax for the role, also the choice of King George VI, who did not warm to Winston at first. They regarded him as impetuous and his military failure at Gallipoli had followed him like a bad smell into his role as Prime Minister.

The knives were sharpened, gleaming and out on display.

One comment of a passing politician can be heard saying: “He has a hundred ideas a day, but only four of them are any good, the other 96 are useless.” Even his ally, the French Prime Minister referred to him as ‘delusional’ after their first meeting.

Gary Oldman’s superb portrayal showed us a man who was under no illusions about the unimaginable difficulties that lay ahead, yet who still relished the challenge and rose to his calling. He became the leader he was born to be, just when the nation (and in a wider sense, Western Europe), needed him most.

Winston chooses his War Cabinet, who grudgingly admit ‘he was right about Hitler’ which includes his enemies Chamberlain, Halifax and Labour leader Clement Attlee, who Churchill describes in derogatory terms, as ‘a sheep in sheep’s clothing’, so that he can keep them close and gain all perspectives.

This is admirable on his part, but they rarely agree with him and actively plot to get him removed by a vote of no confidence and replaced by Lord Halifax, using Winston’s unwillingness to negotiate a peace treaty with Hitler as their reason.

Darkest Hour highlights Winston’s heart-rending dilemma: there are over 300,000 British soldiers (plus allied soldiers) stranded in Dunkirk, surrounded by Hitler’s military forces in control of France, with only 4,000 men stationed nearby at Calais who can possibly draw fire from the Nazi’s long enough for the evacuation to take place at Dunkirk.

Survival is the victory Churchill hopes for, so that he can bolster and regroup the nation’s war efforts to avoid the same fate of invasion that has just taken place in Western Europe.

Winston knows it will take a miracle even to get 10,000 men out alive. He gives the order for Brigadier Claude Nicholson and his brave men at Calais to make a heroic ‘last stand’ for the greater good, knowing he is effectively signing their death warrants. A decision that proves unpopular in his War Cabinet and that affects him very deeply.

Sadly, that is the nature of leadership; especially during war time, impossible decisions had to be made.

If he can’t get the men out of Dunkirk he knows that our island faces almost certain subjugation and possibly annihilation, and is being pressured to negotiate peace before the outcome of Dunkirk has unfolded. On top of that he has the memory of his past failures haunting him.

The tension is palpable, as much as any fast paced thriller, probably all the more because we know it really happened. Having recently seen Dunkirk (another spectacular film), it put those closely linked events into context for me.

It sent shivers down my spine watching Winston determining the best course of action, and of how the outcome could have been very, very different.

Even though it’s a heavy subject matter, with scenes of desperate news coming from Europe and shouty, strategic meetings taking place in atmospheric, oppressive, smoke filled underground War Rooms; they are interspersed with light and comic moments.

Such as when (and this is most likely fictional), Winston’s first ‘V for Victory’ sign is captured on a newspaper front page the wrong way round, so Miss Layton educates Winston to turn his fingers round the other way to ensure he is not swearing, and Winston being told his response was required to the Lord Privy Seal, whilst he is seated on the toilet at No. 10. We hear his dry remark as he flushes, “I am sealed in the privy, I can only deal with one shit at a time.”

In another scene when he is at lunch with the King at the palace, he asks Winston about his relationship with his parents, and gets the candid response that his mother was beautiful and glamorous and had many admirers, and that his father was like God. Busy elsewhere.

This is not mentioned in the film, but luckily Winston was very close to his nanny growing up, who to all intents and purposes was a surrogate mother to him. I wrote about my visit to his ancestral and birth home, Blenheim Palace.

The scene in which Winston makes his first radio address to the nation highlights his perfectionist approach to his writing and speaking and his attempt to buoy the nation in the face of tyranny and terror.

Another funny yet serious moment comes when Winston is in what is thought to be his toilet in the War Rooms, which is in fact a private phone booth, as he calls on US President Franklin D Roosevelt to ask for delivery of the aircraft that the British have brought from them with money they had lent to the British for their purchase!

Although sympathetic to Churchill’s plight, FDR tells him that due to their Neutrality Act the aircraft cannot be transported to British coastal waters, but that they can be pulled by horses across the border to Canada.

Whilst the audience are likely thinking WTF? Winston seemingly goes into a trance as Franklin calls his name down the line, while he is having a flash of inspiration.

It is when he emerges that he orders a broadcast requesting all fishing boats, yachts and pleasure craft over 30 foot long be dispatched from the south coast to assist the Navy with evacuating our stranded army at Dunkirk.

This clip from Anthony Nolan’s brilliant film Dunkirk depicts Winston’s ‘Operation Dynamo’ in action:

In the end hundreds of civilian craft answered the call and nearly all the British forces were thankfully rescued from the beaches at Dunkirk.

Churchill had already made the decision not to negotiate with Hitler on the courage of his convictions, a leap of faith in the nation and what he knew of dictators from history and their insatiable appetite for power.

I can understand to some extent that Lord Halifax wanted to save lives and explore peace, but I think his ideology was misguided in that particular situation. Had he been Prime Minister, and had the War Cabinet ultimately gone down that path it would have been more devastating long term than the losses we sustained during the war years.

It would perhaps be like living a scenario similar to Robert Harris’s chilling novel, Fatherland.

How can you measure, or put a price on human freedom?

Before making his decision, literally during his darkest hour, as pressure mounted from Chamberlain and Halifax to negotiate and all seemed lost for our forces in France, a depressed and lonely Winston sits on his bed, when in bursts Clementine announcing that he has a visitor.

You sense it’s an important visitor, and when he gives a curmudgeonly grimace and asks who it is, she tells him matter-of-factly, “The King.”

“Which King?” Winston scrunches up his face in confusion. He genuinely looks shocked as the tall, well-groomed George VI enters the room.

It is a beautifully crafted scene in which the two men find common ground, portrayed as the beginning of their friendship. George is angry at having to consider fleeing to Canada, something the Royal Family, to their credit, did not do.

He offers Winston his full support in his defence of the realm and seeing his increasing leaning towards entering so called ‘peace talks’ gives him the same advice that Winston had previously given him: to listen to the mood of the people.

I’m sure the scene where Winston slips out of his official car and takes the District Line to Westminster is also fictional, but its dramatic effect works well in the context of the film.

He chats to shocked and nervous passengers on the underground, who show him respect and admiration, something very rare for any politician to experience in this day and age. He puts to them the choice of fighting the Nazi’s or surrendering, and they all give him their support to fight.

With his mind made up once again on defeating Hitler ‘whatever the cost’ he strides through parliament and gathers politicians for a chat before addressing the house. He tells them him his mind, and the mind of the people he has spoken with, asking if they wish to see Swastika flags flying above Buckingham Palace and Windsor, to which they resolutely respond they do not.

Credit: Jack English / Focus Features

The mood has changed to defiance, and then we see the spine tingling scene in the commons where Winston gives his ‘never surrender’ speech on 4th June 1940. Even his enemy Chamberlain, takes his white handkerchief and pats his forehead at the end as a signal to his party to back Winston.

We see that he has navigated the nation through its darkest hour to what we know will eventually be ‘their finest hour’ speech.

Here is the actual full ‘We shall never surrender speech’:

Was Winston Churchill a perfect man?

No. Not by a long shot. He had his fair share of foibles, but he proved to be the perfect flawed man for the job of rousing the nation, instilling its will to attain victory and building its belief that it could defeat an evil force that threatened its shores, its way of life, and no less than civilisation itself.

Much the same as we face now on a smaller, but no less insidious scale, in fundamental Islamic terrorist groups.

Interviews with the writer, director and cast give an interesting insight into why and how Darkest Hour was made:

This film gets five stars all-round from me; it’s a stunning fictional portrayal of a great man during a momentous historic event, that makes you appreciate so very much that we didn’t end up living under the grip of the Gestapo.

I will no doubt watch Darkest Hour time and again in the future, especially when I need reminding of how good we’ve got it compared to previous generations.

Not everyone is a fan of the film itself, Mark Kermode gives his views:

Darkest Hour filled me with gratitude and admiration for Winston Churchill and his courage and unwavering leadership, and also to the many men and women who bravely fought for the freedoms that we take for granted today. Winston took on the burden of delivering us from unspeakable tyranny.

Although this is not a traditional Valentine’s Day post, it embodies the love that is expressed through service and duty. Jesus reminds us:

Greater love has no one than this, that he lay down his life for his friends.

I have total respect for my grandparents’ generation. My paternal Australian grandfather flew spitfires for the RAAF in Burma and my maternal grandfather was part of the Home Guard in the UK. My daughter’s paternal and multilingual great grandfather was secretly operating in Norway during WWII and was awarded the Freedom of Norway by the King of Norway for his services.

We must never take our freedom for granted, and should do what we can to assist other people and nations being persecuted by tyrants, who are going through their own darkest hours around the world.

Even with Brexit looming I feel we should do our best to keep our long standing friendship with our European allies alive; as bonds that were forged in the fire of adversity could potentially be eroded through nationalist sentiments and a hard line approach by the current Conservative government.

Thankfully, being an island nation worked in our favour during WWII, but as poet John Donne so eloquently espoused in his prose, and Gary Oldman so touchingly portrayed; no man is an island.

No man is an island,
Entire of itself,
Every man is a piece of the continent,
A part of the main.
If a clod be washed away by the sea,
Europe is the less.
As well as if a promontory were.
As well as if a manor of thy friend’s
Or of thine own were:
Any man’s death diminishes me,
Because I am involved in mankind,
And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls;
It tolls for thee.
~ John Donne

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.