“Darkest Hour”

 

                England, May of 1940.  All the news is bad.  The Germans “blitzkrieg” has quickly overrun Poland, Belgium, and Holland.  France’s resistance is rapidly crumbling, and now, suddenly, all the British troops that are fighting in support of the French are being pushed toward the Sea.  The situation is so dire that the Prime Minister, Neville Chamberlain, is ousted, and the only man both parties can agree on is Winston Churchill.  But he comes with a lot of baggage.

                Churchill (Gary Oldman) is a study in contradictions.  He’s happily married to Clemmie (Kristin Scott Thomas), but essentially he’s a loner.  He sleeps in his own bed.  He starts barking dictation to his secretary, Ms. Layton (Lily James) while still in his pajamas.  He starts every morning with Scotch, and continues drinking the rest of the day, but he enjoys a masterful command of the English language, as if he were always in possession of all his faculties.  He doesn’t exercise, he smokes cigars constantly, and he’s overweight.  And yet he charges forward rather than walks, leading with his head, scowling like a bulldog.  Though he suffers from quiet moments of self-doubt, it’s the bluster of his resolve that inspires the British people. 

                At a time when everything seems to be falling apart, courage takes on the air of defiance.  And in this, Churchill correctly read the mood of his constituency.  The King, George VI (Ben Mendelsohn), though at first hesitant about the choice of Churchill as Prime Minister, even admittedly intimidated by him, realizes that this is the kind of larger-than-life persona that Britain needs.  When the army is trapped at Dunkirk, it’s Churchill who calls for the armada of private yachts, some 800, to sail across the Channel to rescue the stranded soldiers.  And some 300,000 were saved, which enabled England to keep fighting.

                Gary Oldman’s performance is remarkable as the crusty, feisty, larger-than-life Churchill.  The script allows for more than just a caricature:  a little fatigue here, a few moments of indecision there.  An incident of sudden weeping, and a minute of pure, unrestrained hilarity.  Kristin Scott Thomas plays a sympathetic, supportive Clemmie, who realizes how much her husband needs her, even if he doesn’t.

                Yes, there were those in Churchill’s own Party who were ready to surrender, feeling that negotiating peace terms with Hitler, through Mussolini, was better than undergoing any more casualties.  But Winston kept flashing the “V” in public, pointing the people toward a victory that he knew would be terribly costly.  But then, the price of freedom always is.

 

Dr. Ronald P. Salfen, DFW Film Critics Association