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Darkest Hour, Best Film of the Year

The word “uncompromising” is often attached to creative artists who defy convention. It is usually reserved for those who break taboos about violence or sex, particularly in motion pictures. Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver (1976) is “uncompromising,” as is Oliver Stone’s Natural Born Killers (1994), Marlon Brando’s pornographic Last Tango in Paris (1972), and Darron Aronofsky’s ugly and violent homage to environmentalism, Mother! (2017).

Darkest Hour, the new film about Winston Churchill’s leadership of Britain as the Nazis approached in 1940, is a truly uncompromising movie. However, the conventions it rejects are the ones that have become clichés in Hollywood. This marvelous film has no sex or graphic violence. Most of it takes place underground, most often in a bunker. It is driven by dialogue and the protagonist is a 65-year-old man, a “British Bulldog” who is overweight, smokes cigars, stutters and mumbles, and drinks during the day. While most war movies will leaven the depiction of carnage with something gentler—say, a scene of people waltzing or having tea to prove there is still humanity in the midst of a blitz—Darkest Hour offers few such moments.

That unrelenting concentration is what makes this such a mesmerizing, exuberant, and exhilarating film. It narrates the events surrounding the “Never Surrender” speech that the Prime Minister gave in June 1940, the year Britain was preparing for what it was sure would be an invasion by the forces of the Third Reich. Gary Oldman gives a towering, lifetime-best performance as Churchill. It is directed by Joe Wright. Wright (Pride & Prejudice, 2005) shares the aesthetic of Casablanca director Michael Curtiz, who once said that it was the director’s job to become invisible. Aside from some elegant overhead shots that circle down into the well of the British Parliament, Wright wisely keep his camera still, letting the wonderful cast provide the drama.

Characters include King George VI (Ben Mendelsohn), Neville Chamberlain (Ronald Pickup), Viscount Halifax (Stephen Dillane), and Churchill’s secretary, Elizabeth Layton (Lily James), who provides the everyman perspective of someone going to work for the irascible and voluble Prime Minister. Kristin Scott Thomas is full of graceful strength as Churchill’s wife, Clemmie.

Oldman has played a great variety of real-life and fictional characters, including Beethoven, the British playwright Joe Orton, Police Commissioner Jim Gordon in Christopher Nolan’s Batman movies, and punk rocker Sid Vicious. He has drawn from all of these roles to play this one. His Churchill simply tells King George, who at first doubts Churchill’s competence, that he’s always had “a wildness in the blood.” His humor is present throughout: He tells a critic what makes it possible to drink at breakfast is “practice,” and laughs uproariously when he learns that the “V for Victory” sign he thought he was flashing the press photographers is instead an obscene gesture. There is a flash of Oldman’s portrayal of Sid Vicious when Churchill shows his defiance and his passion. “You are strong because you are imperfect,” Clemmie tells her husband.

Much like Tony Kushner did in writing the screenplay for Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln (2012), this movie’s writer, Anthony McCarten (The Theory of Everything, 2014), keeps the entire story focused on a few days in 1940, when the Nazi threat was at its most grave and the British had soldiers stranded at Dunkirk. (The very fine Dunkirk that Nolan made last year is a great companion piece to Darkest Hour.)

As Michael Korda notes in his 2017  book Alone, in May of that year Churchill was surrounded on all sides by skeptics and political adversaries. The Germans had conquered Poland, Holland, and Belgium and were pressing through France; the British Army was stranded at Dunkirk; and then-Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain’s wobbly government had proven incapable of facing the threat. When Churchill succeeded him in the spring of 1940, Britain was totally isolated.

The underground settings in Darkest Hour, as well as the humid grays, blacks, and blues of Bruno Delbonnel’s cinematography, capture this feeling of claustrophobia. We see Churchill, stowed away in an underground bathroom, on the phone with FDR vainly attempting to enlist the help of the Americans. The camera is tight on Churchill’s face, a map of desperation. President Roosevelt can offer some planes, but law prevents him from actually delivering them—or the British from picking them up using trucks. England can, however, drag the planes over the Canadian border using horses. From this low point, slowly, and then with increasingly brazenness, Churchill rallies his nation to action. “He has weaponized the English language,” comments one former detractor in Parliament. In another great scene, Churchill rides the London tube to be among ordinary Britons, who, to a person, say they will fight to the death to defend “our little island.”

This is the kind of filmmaking that’s rarely done anymore—mature, beautifully written, and tastefully shot, understated yet full of drama that is earned and bolstered by the best acting talent. In an age when so many movies rely on excessive explosions and endless light-saber battles, it’s a thrill to experience the carefully crafted buildup that leads to Churchill’s excoriation of the wafflers who, even as the Wehrmacht was banging on the door, insisted on trying to appease Hitler. “You cannot reason with a tiger when your head is in its mouth!” Churchill cries.

The film climaxes at Churchill’s “We Shall Fight on the Beaches” address delivered at the House of Commons on June 4, 1940:

I have, myself, full confidence that if all do their duty, if nothing is neglected, and if the best arrangements are made, as they are being made, we shall prove ourselves once again able to defend our Island home, to ride out the storm of war, and to outlive the menace of tyranny, if necessary for years, if necessary alone.

At any rate, that is what we are going to try to do. That is the resolve of His Majesty’s Government-every man of them. That is the will of Parliament and the nation.

The British Empire and the French Republic, linked together in their cause and in their need, will defend to the death their native soil, aiding each other like good comrades to the utmost of their strength. Even though large tracts of Europe and many old and famous States have fallen or may fall into the grip of the Gestapo and all the odious apparatus of Nazi rule, we shall not flag or fail.

We shall go on to the end, we shall fight in France, we shall fight on the seas and oceans, we shall fight with growing confidence and growing strength in the air, we shall defend our Island, whatever the cost may be, we shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills; we shall never surrender, and even if, which I do not for a moment believe, this Island or a large part of it were subjugated and starving, then our Empire beyond the seas, armed and guarded by the British Fleet, would carry on the struggle, until, in God’s good time, the New World, with all its power and might, steps forth to the rescue and the liberation of the old.

At once a dramatic history lesson, an acting clinic put on by Oldman, and a rousing good time with important lessons about the courage to stand up to tyranny, Darkest Hour is not to be missed.

Reader Discussion

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on December 22, 2017 at 09:48:57 am

Yes, all true! All of it! Never has one stood so alone and done so much for so many.
And never has the permanence of art so beautifully captured the vanishing memory of indescribable victory.

And after LIVING vicariously in the film of this great saga you all must READ John Lucak's "The Duel" and in print SEE the Great Round Hero during his 80 greatest days of finest hours save the world from the Great Satan and THRILL to the paean of Lukacs' closing narration:

"A great statesman prevailed over a great revolutionary; the writer over the orator; a cosmopolitan over a racist; a democratic aristocrat over a populist demagogue; a traditionalist over a radical; a patriot over a nationalist -- during the Second World War which was a catastrophe for millions of people but whose outcome spared the world an even worse one."

The greatest man of the twentieth century said: "Never give in--never, never, never, never, in nothing great or small, large or petty, never give in except to convictions of honour and good sense. Never yield to force; never yield to the apparently overwhelming might of the enemy."

And, thanks be to God, Churchill never did-- never, never, never, never.

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timothy
on December 22, 2017 at 10:51:05 am

Interesting review since I've heard and read so many negative reviews from historians who know what actually happened. I've come to the conclusion that the film is great entertainment but a gross mischaracterization of Churchill's personality and what actually happened. In an hour long discussion of all the historical inaccuracies over at the Federalist, Steve Haywood has to jump through hoops to find any positives. For the 99% of folks who will see this movie who don't read books, they will leave with a false view of history.

Read Martin Gilbert, Lucaks, Max Hastings instead.

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William Brown
on December 22, 2017 at 10:55:46 am

It's 'Lukacs'. Apologies for the mispelling.

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William Brown
on December 22, 2017 at 11:01:49 am

Thanks for the comment. I knew about the historical inaccuracies, but consider it entertainment that takes liberties. It also prompted me to buy books on Churchill, so I think the net effect is more knowledge, not less.

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Mark Judge
on December 22, 2017 at 12:06:03 pm

Is "Darkest Hour" better than HBO's "The Gathering Storm" and "Into the Storm." I found both to very good.

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EK
on December 22, 2017 at 17:08:52 pm

There is one negative comment on Mr. Judge's movie review, that which says, "For the 99% of folks who will see this movie who don’t read books, they will leave with a false view of history." Besides lamenting a fact of human nature, that there's always a Grinch trying to steal a Christmas, I have the following thoughts:

1) Statistics aside (why do so many people with zero statistical grounds so confidently make bold statistical assertions that are so outlandish as to undermine their credibility on that basis alone?) I would argue that ALL (not merely 99%:) of those unfortunate people "who don't read books" but who are fortunate enough to see "Darkest Hour" "will leave with a ... view of history" that matters most in this case: the real truth as to Churchill the real man as he really was and as he really responded; Churchill who really had been just-then named his nation's leader at what really was its time of gravest peril; Churchill who really was wracked with doubt, daunted by dangerous uncertainty, opposed by life-long colleagues and over-burdened with fear for the fate of his countrymen; Churchill who, then, really was magnificent. Really. And knowing all that from a mere 2 hours in a movie is really important (especially for those "who don't read books.":)

2) It is simply foolish to assert otherwise and to argue that specific factual errors or even minor exaggerations in portraying an event or a setting, a person, an idea or an era are tantamount to distorting their truths and falsifying their essential character and nature. To argue so is, literally, to deny all that is truthful and beautiful in art, literature, poetry and , yes, history. (And if one reads the approvingly-cited John Lukacs on the historian's art one would likely agree.)

3) Film-writers and directors and authors of historical fiction are not painters or poets or playwrights or novelists or CNN reporters who create their own facts or who distort or dispense with significant facts or who greatly exaggerate the facts, all the better to make their insights glisten. But they are, most-importantly, story-tellers who unearth the past, sift its soil and mold its clay of ascertainable fact so as to shape a story whose over-arching, most crucial narrative is both true and, if possible, dramatic as to the person and his times. And that is precisely what 'Darkest Hour" does.

4) No historian, novelist, playwright or poet; no writer of historical fiction, no screen-writer and certainly no artist ever got, nor will ever get, "all the facts right." And if she ever does no one would ever read her work or love his art because literal reproduction has no truth worth seeing except in a courtroom, a newsroom, a documentary, a photograph or a museum.

5) Catherine Drinker Bowen missed lots of historical facts, exaggerated some and misstated others but captured the very historical soul of Lord Coke in "The Lion and the Throne" and of Justice Holmes in "Yankee From Olympus." Nobody cares that Shakespeare played fast and loose with "Plutarch's Parallel Lives" and "Holinshed's Chronicles..." because it's unimportant, immaterial, of no consequence to the essential truths of "Coriolanus" and "Julius Caesar" or "Richard II" and "Henry V." The same might well be said of Plutarch and Holinshed, themselves, and of Churchill, whose factual-error-laden "Second World War" won him a Nobel Prize, and of Herodotus, Tacitus, Livy and Gibbon, all of whom wrote with the truth of deep insight but have been deeply corrected on their facts. And according to Andrew Roberts who most recently has written on Churchill (as historian,) even Martin Gilbert's monumental works on Churchill lack substantial newly-learned facts.

And I suspect ( who can know?) that Francesco denied the factual accuracy of Signora Gioconda's smile, but would anybody for that reason fault the Mona Lisa?

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timothy

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