Winston Churchill, in the form of the formidable Gary Oldman, faces his “Darkest Hour” in this week’s pick of the flicks.
Cast: Gary Oldman, Kristin Scott-Thomas, Lily James, Ben Mendelsohn, Ronald Pickup, Samuel West
Director: Joe Wright
There are countless films and documentaries about Sir Winston Churchill and countless actors who have played the role.
Over the years we have observed an array of Churchills, from the tall to the obese, and from the sloppy to the scowling bulldog. Now we have Oscar nominated Gary Oldman portraying the old man, warts and all, in a different light.
He does an excellent job, even though he never quite gets that distinctive voice completely right, but then I’m being a little picky.
Oldman, one of the UK’s most accomplished actors, provides a truly solid portrait, both in look and spirit, with his trademark cigar clamped firmly in his mouth and a glass of whisky close by. He captures the many nuances of Churchill’s demeanour and personality, a man fighting alone to save his country and the world from Nazi barbarism.
Deftly directed by Joe Wright, “Darkest Hour” deals with the brief span between Churchill’s appointment as prime minister and the fall of France in World War II. It was the period in which Britain had to decide whether to fight on alone or to pursue some kind of negotiated peace on Adolf Hitler’s terms.
Churchill wanted to fight but his government was split on the subject, and there loomed a real possibility that Churchill might be swiftly replaced. There were men waiting in the wings – but he was dogged in his determination to continue the fight, trumpeting the slogan, “we will never surrender.
A nicely orchestrated scene takes place in the Underground with Churchill on the Tube for the first time. He meets the working people and gauges, first hand, the pulse of the nation.
“Darkes Hour” is a rarely told story. Many are familiar with the period that followed, Britain’s “finest hour,” in which the nation faced Hitler alone for a full year, where they resisted submarine attacks and aerial bombardment.
This production recounts the story that preceded it, in which an outgunned, peace-loving nation looked into the abyss and found the will to risk everything.
Churchill was the key to that channelling of the national will but what is important is that he was not the obvious choice to lead his country.
Anthony McCarten’s superb screenplay makes it clear that King George VI (Ben Mendelsohn) looked upon Churchill as a dangerous old romantic.
The film suggests some good arguments for peace — essentially surrender — which are mouthed by Lord Halifax (Stephen Dillane).
History tells us that Halifax was dangerously wrong but in the context it’s a reasoned argument compared to the emotional and quixotic Churchill who imbibed so much alcohol each day one wondered whether he could think straight.
But we know how things turned out.
Director Wright, whose “Atonement” was a breathtaking piece of filmmaking, inserts moments of visual flair which lift a film that, basically, shows one man moving from one room to room another or arguing with people.
Although “Darkest Hour” deals with grand strategy and policy, it also personalises many aspects. Lily James, of “Downton Abbey” fame, plays one of Churchill’s secretaries and encapsulates the freshness of a new generation and Churchill’s responsibility to the future. We observe Churchill during his dark moments of doubt, attempting to cope with the kind of stress that one can hardly imagine.
He draws his strength from the common people he meets, and especially in the advice dispensed by his wife, Clementine, effectively played by Kristin Scott Thomas, an indulgent yet sensible spouse who can be a stern corrector, when necessary.
“Darkest Hour” is an arresting portrait of one of the 20th century’s most important leaders and a absorbing history lesson