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Arts & Life

Even Knowing The Outcome, 'Darkest Hour' Shines New Light on Winston Churchill


Darkest Hour is now the third film, plus a streaming TV series, just this year, to have at least something to do with Winston Churchill. If you find that tidbit amusing, look at the recent essay by The New Yorker magazine film critic Anthony Lane on the many actors who have played Churchill. There are a lot of them; they mostly make Churchill heroic. But while this latest Churchill, played by Gary Oldman, may be somewhat unfamiliar, he is also the most touching. Oldman’s Churchill is not encased in amber.

Darkest Hour opens on documentary images of German tanks and soldiers in long orderly rows and columns. It gives instant, dire meaning to the phrase “war machine.” Then the picture cuts to a chaotic British parliament, where people are shouting and arguing. It could be the wondrous chaos of democracy, but you can’t forget the grave threat from those images of Germany’s precise, disciplined, malevolent power.

Darkest Hour, as the title indicates, takes place just as the Nazis – the “Nahzzies as Churchill pronounced with scorn – have driven the British army to the English Channel at Dunkirk. Christopher Nolan’s movie Dunkirk does a splendid job of recreating how the scene could have looked, but Nolan’s film is soulless, and clueless about what it all meant. Darkest Hour provides an antidote to that emptiness.

The dramatic rescue of some 300,000 British soldiers took place in the spring of 1940 – over 77 years ago. It seems that the memory has eroded badly. The Nazis had taken over just about all of Europe, and those British soldiers stranded on the beach comprised literally the entire British army – all of it. The British navy in and around Europe was immobilized; the British did not have enough planes to protect the soldiers; the German air force controlled the air. Britain was on the brink of annihilation.

And, as Darkest Hour puts it, along comes slovenly, grumpy, rude Winston Churchill. He becomes prime minister because Neville Chamberlain has failed in his attempt to appease Hitler, yet Chamberlain and his followers still believe in negotiating a settlement – meaning surrender. Churchill is distrusted and disliked. And this is the situation that Darkest Hour takes on.

Gary Oldman’s Churchill doesn’t yet have the stuff of legend. He’s cranky; he’s not the fountain of wisdom, and he hasn’t marshalled the magic words to save the kingdom. At the moment he takes control of the government, he’s a mess. His wife (Kristin Scott Thomas) must scold him about mistreating his staff. King George VI (Ben Mendelsohn) – the father of the present Elizabeth – thinks he’s a dangerous fool, and is dismayed that he must ask Churchill to form a government. Director Joe Wright, writer Anthony McCarten and Gary Oldman bring to the film a picture of Churchill who is fundamentally scared spitless. A ploy to divert the German army’s attention fails, so when Churchill finally speaks to the country about fighting in the fields and the streets, it’s not just a rhetorical flourish.

Darkest Hour comes off as an unruly, unsettling film. There’s Churchill on screen beset even by his advisors, which compounds the grave threat to the nation and the world. He’s almost ready to seek terms with Hitler through the Italian ambassador, even though he sees more clearly than anyone how deathly foolish that would be. The characters around Churchill speak in a range of dense, pompous, garbled, nearly incomprehensible upper-class accents that show how isolated they all are. He senses that the people of Great Britain might be wiser and tougher than these guys, but his dilemma is how to find out. He tells an aide that he’s never ridden the Underground, what we call the subway, but he can boil an egg because he’s seen it done. We know how it all turned out, but how Churchill rode the Underground and boiled that egg is lovely.

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