If you’re looking for a thrilling character piece on one of the most influential and controversial leaders of the 20th Century portrayed by one of the most gifted and oft overlooked actors of this generation, Darkest Hour is going to do it for you. It’s a pretty by-the-numbers example of Oscar bait but not at all in a bad way, the performances all around are worth the price of admission but if you happen to be, as I am, a kind of WWII enthusiast that absorbs every thing from historical record to anecdotal testimony at every chance this film may leave you, as it did me, with an odd sense of disappointment in its finale. Not that it wasn’t powerful and well earned, but within the context of the rest of history it struck an odd note that wasn’t perhaps off-key as much as…a little bit too Hollywood for how grave the situation would continue to be for years after. But I’ll get into that later, first the good bits.
I was initially very skeptical of the prosthetics that went into turning a narrow jawed, sleek Gary Oldman into the famously jowly, overweight British Bulldog but genuine praise needs to go to both the makeup department and of course to the man himself, who disappears so convincingly into the role you forget who you’re watching on-screen. So effective is his performance that an Academy Award almost seems like an afterthought at this point and if I were any other potential nominee I’d already be looking for my next project. In terms of the history of the events portrayed Darkest Hour is admittedly not my favorite depiction of that timeline, there are two original HBO films The Gathering Storm and Into the Storm that provide a better, almost mini-series like approach to the bigger picture, however this new film is hands down the best character depiction of Churchill that’s been made yet, all credit due to Albert Finney and Brendan Gleeson.
It’s a good biopic that illuminates the character and flaws of a great historical figure but it’s a great one that also manages to provide an arc and in this it’s Churchill’s innate detachment from the common man, his inability to relate to the everyday people exemplified by an early offhand comment, “You know, I’ve never ridden a bus before. Ever.” This is a capable bit of foreshadowing of an idea, one that is firmly rooted in the ideals of the very country that they are trying to defend and antithetical to the coming fascist invasion: the concept that the common people’s voices can and should be heard, that nobility is not a quality exclusive to nobility, and that, frankly, in dire times, we’re all in this together.
Darkest Hour is primarily about the divisions and bureaucracy that continue to take place even as the world is burning down to its foundations. It’s simultaneously depressing and inspiring in the way it portrays not necessarily cowards as much as journeymen in history, men who served a function to other greater figures. Churchill was, by all means and measures and his own estimation, a failure up until his election to Prime Minister in the most troubling time for Western Europe in the last, or really any century. He was also a power alcoholic and an extremely divisive figure, only elected, as the film would portray, as a sandbagging tactic by his own party in an attempt make capitulation a more appealing option in the face of Nazi aggression and in this his foes failed miserably. Because in those trying times, when a demagogue had seized control of a world power, England elected an orator, a man who weaponized words in a way that didn’t inspire fear or resentment or hatred, rather, his words were eloquence. He wrote and spoke in a way that evoked a different feeling in his people, a way separate from the atavistic badgering of a madman stoking the worst instincts of a frustrated people. Instead of appealing to weakness, he suggested courage. He inspired dignity. He expressed hope. In his “Blood, Toil, Tears, and Sweat” address, he didn’t ask those things of the people, he offered them from himself.
My problem with the finale of Darkest Hour is that it is a triumphant shouting of Churchills famous “We Shall Fight On the Beaches” speech to a newly energized and supportive Parliament. It’s a rabble-rousing, shake-the-rafters moment where the English people decide to reject potential subjugation by the Nazi regime and Gary Oldman’s Winston struts off gallantly, cue the ending cards, roll credits. But. This didn’t sit right for me. It’s possible that my recent rewatch of Chris Nolan’s Dunkirk skewed my opinion but, to me, the elegant, subdued recitation of the same speech by a young soldier fresh from surviving hell on earth was exponentially more affecting in its framing. This speech was not a football coach reinvigorating his team at half time or a dramatic charge into the breech, dear friend. This was about resolve. It was about hold fast. It was about this far, no further. And the celebratory nature of the ending, while cinematically necessary to a casual audience, rings a few too many major chords, incongruous with the long, difficult, uncertain path ahead.
Darkest Hour is a fine film and I’ll admit to splitting some hairs with regard to tone but that issue I have with the ending is a recurring one, a shouting of things as opposed to a delivery and this is fine. We’re talking, again, about an actor who can make an entire scene with one single word (EVERYONE!) so see it for the performance alone but if an HBO GO profile is available, I’d look into those other depictions as well because while Winston Churchill’s leadership and character were polarizing and much debated, he was in nearly every interpretation absolutely as fascinating as advertised.