I’m not sure how it happened or why it happened but 2017 will go down as the year we had four films and one TV series about the Churchill Era. Here in Hong Kong, we’ve already had THEIR FINEST and DUNKIRK, both films about the Dunkirk evacuation, on our movie screens. (I mildly liked the former and was completely bored by the latter.) We’ve also had two fabulous seasons of THE CROWN in which American actor John Lithgow plays the portly statesman. He is excellent in the role but I understand that the set makers had to build extra tall doorways for Lithgow and shoot him from high angles because the real Churchill was much shorter and they wanted to keep the perspective the same. Another film, CHURCHILL, with Scottish actor Brian Cox in the title role, was supposed to come here in November but never did. It’s already available on Amazon so perhaps it won’t ever come to our cinemas. Finally, there’s DARKEST HOUR, starring Gary Oldman, which is opening here today. He is being touted for an Oscar nomination (and he’s probably a shoo-in to take home a BAFTA) but is he really that good or is the Hollywood publicity machine simply working overtime?
DARKEST HOUR aptly refers to the time when the British Empire alone stood up against Nazi Germany and the Axis powers in Europe. Although US President Roosevelt sympathised with Britain, his administration was bound by law to remain neutral. It wasn’t until the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor in December 1941 that the US entered the war. Long before that though, in June 1940, approximately 400,000 Allied troops found themselves surrounded after Belgium and France fell to the invading Nazi forces. Faced with the prospect of seeing his army decimated, Churchill made the bold decision to mount an armada of navy ships and private boats to sail across the English Channel for France to rescue the soldiers in full knowledge that for many onboard those vessels it would be a suicide mission. In the end, over 330,000 soldiers were rescued and British army was able to regroup and live to fight another day. Many in England called the Dunkirk evacuation or, as it was known by its code name, Operation Dynamo, a miracle and a victory, though Churchill was quick to remind everyone that “wars are not won by evacuations”.
Though Churchill was wildly loved by the people, the sentiment was quite different in his Conservative party leading up to the evacuation. After Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain lost a vote of confidence in Parliament, it was assumed that his Foreign Secretary, Lord Halifax, would take over. Events, however, conspired against Halifax, and Churchill who, unlike Chamberlain and Halifax, was against appeasement with Hitler, was named as the new prime minister. Even as Churchill grappled with the possibility of losing every soldier in Europe, Halifax was pushing him to reach an accord with Hitler. But, as Churchill quite rightly told him, “You can’t negotiate with a lion when it already has your head in its mouth.” Perhaps the real Churchill never said that but it certainly sounds like something he would have said.
It’s lines like that that made him such a legendary figure. He was a master orator, knowing the right words and the right turn of phrase that would either inspire or berate. DARKEST HOUR is peppered with plenty of Churchillisms, or pseudo-Churchillisms, and Oldman (THE HITMAN’S BODYGUARD) delivers each and every one of them with wonderful relish. For him, this role is a tour de force and every accolade that gets bestowed upon him will be completely deserved.
Unfortunately, he’s the whole film as all the other characters are simply there to set him up for his next big oration. They’re like a volleyball team of setters and he’s the spiker. I wish screenwriter Anthony McCarten (THE THEORY OF EVERYTHING) had given us a story that had more dramatic moments outside of those speeches. Lily James (BABY DRIVER) plays Elizabeth Layton, Churchill’s personal secretary. In addition to typing out his speeches on an old typewriter at breakneck speed, she essentially serves as the audience’s surrogate, asking the dumb questions that we’re supposed to be thinking. Perhaps the story should have been told from her point of view. Kristin Scott Thomas (best known for THE ENGLISH PATIENT) plays Clemmie, Churchill’s wife, who is relegated to be his long-suffering, behind-the-scenes, cheerleader. Maybe she really was but as a character in a movie, it’s pretty one-dimensional. Hers was a good performance but it wasn’t her most challenging role. Ben Mendelsohn (SLOW WEST; EXODUS: GODS AND KINGS) as King George VI and Stephen Dillane (Stannis Baratheon on TV’s GAME OF THRONES) as Lord Halifax also put in good performances for what they were given. Both actors put on pukka highborn accents that are quite amusing to listen to. Claire Foy, who plays Queen Elizabeth in the first two seasons of TV’s THE CROWN, has the same accent. Thankfully, Princes William and Harry do not and we can probably credit their schooling at Eton for that.
DARKEST HOUR has already received plenty of nominations and a few awards on both sides of the Atlantic with all but two awards going to Oldman. Now the January is here, we can look forward to the big award presentations over the next few months and again, Oldman’s exceptional performance here should receive plenty of attention. That’s because everything else about the film, with the exception of the photography, is rather underwhelming.
Definitely go see the film, though, if only to watch Oldman and take in Churchill’s most famous speeches.
No Facebook Live today because of a crappy Internet connection. Instead, listen to the review recorded live in RTHK Radio 4’s studio on Thursday, January 4th at 8:30 am HK time!
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