What could be regarded as a “thinking man’s response” to the massively successful Christopher Nolan film Dunkirk, Darkest Hour, a collaboration between writer Anthony McCarten (The Theory of Everything) and director Joe Wright (Atonement), is actually a prequel to the greatest military evacuation ever recorded, and contains almost no combat footage. The film covers a time frame from May 9 to June 4, 1940, when Winston Churchill (Gary Oldman) became a “compromise” Prime Minister following the ouster of Conservative Party PM Neville Chamberlain (Ronald Pickup). Chamberlain had adopted an appeasement policy toward Hitler that completely backfired and asks Edward Wood, 1st Lord of Halifax (Stephen Dilane) to become his party’s replacement candidate for his position. When Halifax declines, the only Tory option is Churchill, First Lord of the Admiralty, who was still damaged goods after the WW I disaster at Gallipoli and his support of King Edward VIII’s abdication.
After getting King George VI’s (Ben Mendelssohn) reluctant approval, Churchill, who correctly understood the Nazi threat, has only the support of friend Anthony Eden (Samuel West) and of his devoted wife Clementine “Clemmy” (Kristin Scott Thomas) who continually works on improving his image. Churchill forms a War Cabinet that includes rivals Halifax and Chamberlain to determine the best alternative course of action regarding Germany: negotiating a peace agreement versus fighting on. Complicating matters further is the progressive surrender of Western Europe to the Germans as they proceed with their invasion of France. The crucial moment in the storyline occurs less than one month into the Churchill administration when German forces surround 300,000 British troops on the Dunkirk beach with their only obstacle being the modest fortification at Calais. Halifax and Chamberlain press for a peace agreement with Hitler while Churchill remains steadfastly opposed, even when American President Franklin Delano Roosevelt essentially refuses him military aid, citing the post WW I Neutrality Acts. After the successful return of the British soldiers from Dunkirk to England, and fortified by numerous jiggers of Scotch whisky, a steadfast Churchill goes to Parliament and delivers the speech of his life containing the brilliant peroration: “we shall fight them on the beaches…we shall never surrender.”
Darkest Hour is an ultimate victory lap by the often-troubled British film star Gary Oldman who has already left an impressive body of work. Oldman is more than adequately supported by young Lily James as his pert secretary Elizabeth Layton who becomes the voice (and face) of the British people and the redoubtable Kristin Scott Thomas as the loyal and loving Clemmie. While the short trip on the “underground” before “the speech” is apocryphal and his private sessions with his wife are in the scriptwriter McCarten’s imagination, this picture succeeds where its 2017 predecessor Churchill mostly failed in the retelling the story of a 20th century hero. The sense of a conflicted conscience and downright humanity of its protagonist have yet to be equaled let alone surpassed, genius prosthetic work notwithstanding, and we get the rare glimpse, warts and all, of a real historic figure. Imagine that Sir Winston had taken the path more traveled and succumbed to the petitions of his political party for a brokered peace with Germany. Darkest Hour would have offered a quite different glimpse of events that shaped the future for much of the Western World. A tour de force and Oscar-worthy performance by one of today’s most skilled actors, this is a riveting historical drama that simply must be seen.
Darkest Hour is in theaters nationwide December 22, 2017
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