Darkest Hour joins Dunkirk and Churchill, as the third major film this year to tackle World War II from a British perspective. [At this stage your reviewer has foregone the pleasure of the other two war sagas but couldn't resist the free preview seats from NBCUniversal.]
Director Joe Wright and screenwriter Anthony McCarten have skilfully recreated the world of Westminster in May 1940, as Winston Churchill achieved arguably his finest hour. Not only did he have to grapple with Germany's seeming military invincibility. He was determined to torpedo negotiations with Hitler, without losing his newly won and long coveted prime-ministership. Both his predecessor Neville Chamberlain and his main rival Viscount Halifax favoured peace talks with the Nazis.
It is a familiar story for many baby boomers. The wartime Prime Minister had mythological status in our formative years. The filmmakers faced the difficult task of appealing to a wide audience with very different levels of knowledge and understanding of either the man or the moment. [Film reviewers face the same challenge.] How many millennials would know about Churchill's role in the Gallipoli debacle, for instance.
A tight script and coherent direction weave considerable personal and political detail into the 125 minutes. His iconic speeches are handled economically and we spend a minimum in the map room or following Winston's relentless pacing with cigar and cane at the ready.
The film covers much of his legend: the heavy drinking and depression; his aristocratic eccentricities and remoteness from ordinary Britons; his stubbornness and recklessness; his iron will and temper; and his theatrical self-promotion.
Overall it is visually engaging: his private lift rises through a black screen, taking the solitary PM up to 10 Downing street; Churchill is driven to Westminster through busy London streets, cocooned from the frenetic life outside. The atmosphere is often claustrophobic, underlining both the pressures and his political isolation.
Inevitably, the movie is trite and clichéd at times. The trailer shares an almost identical opening scene with the movie Churchill, as his Rolls Royce/Bentley arrives at the arched entrance to parliament. Gary Oldman's mimicry of the old man is quite effective, though he is sometimes put in situations that can only be described as caricature at best. The meet-the-people scene on the London underground is hyper-melodramatic, going way beyond disbelief. It sets the record for the longest journey between two adjoining tube stations. The stale joke about babies is unforgivable, as is the overacting.
His interactions with wife Clementine (played with her usual flair by Kristin Scott Thomas) and personal secretary Elizabeth Layton (Lily James) help to humanise his titanic personality. So do the glimpses of his humour, toilet jokes and all. It is disappointing that there are no exchanges with Winston's ally of the time, Anthony Eden, who grins or frowns silently throughout the cabinet room battles.
Australian Ben Mendelsohn does a very serviceable job as King George VI. His strong frame and presence more than fill the role, seemingly at odds with king's character. Nevertheless, his relationship with Winnie is one of the more endearing aspects of the film.
The blurred line between apocrypha and actual events is inevitable in historical fiction. The first tense encounter between Winston and Elizabeth is apparently based on fact. It's a pity that she did not join his staff until the following year. Stephen Dillane (Halifax) gets to deliver journalist Ed Murrow's famous line that Churchill had "mobilised the English language and sent it into battle".
Nevertheless, most of the story seems an accurate representation of the actual machinations within cabinet and the parliament. Wikipedia has a thorough article on the May 1940 War Cabinet crisis.
Finally, the safe, somewhat conservative approach to this crucial episode in twentieth century history may be explained by the Churchill family toast on his accession: "Here's to not buggering it up!"