Saturday, December 30, 2017

Darkest Hour

I took myself out to the movies last night, and saw the Joe Wright film Darkest Hour, starring an almost unrecognizable Gary Oldman as Winston Churchill. The film depicts Churchill's first few weeks after he became prime minister of the U.K., when the odds of his country fighting a war against Nazi Germany had suddenly gone from "it's so preposterous, nobody is worried it could happen" to "we're so screwed, we might as well sue for peace and hope Hitler lets us off lightly."

Churchill, as depicted in this movie, had always wanted to lead his country, but typically, he only got the chance when the situation was practically hopeless. He knew he was unwanted, but the support of the opposition was needed to hold the government together, and they wouldn't support anyone else from his party. King George VI didn't trust him. His predecessor, Neville Chamberlain, and the foreign secretary Viscount Halifax were secretly trying to undermine him and/or force him to accept peace terms from the enemy. The U.S. was not yet being at all helpful, thanks to a series of laws enforcing the country's neutrality in the war (coded language for "cowardice") and reneging on deals with its allies (code for "betrayal"). And the whole country's military apparatus was trapped on the wrong side of the English Channel, surrounded in all directions by either water or a numerically and tactically superior enemy. It really seemed to be a problem even Churchill could not solve. But then, as Halifax put it, he mobilized the English language for battle.

The film only sees the great man through this first crisis of his tenure as P.M., but as a title at the end explains, as soon as he was done guiding his country through a five year ordeal, almost immediately upon victory Churchill was voted out of office. Nice.

Besides Oldman as Churchill, the movie also features Ronald Pickup (best known to recent movie audiences for his role in The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel series) as Chamberlain, Ben Mendelsohn (Orson Krennic in Rogue One) as George VI, Kristin Scott Thomas (The English Patient, Four Weddings and a Funeral) as Clementine Churchill, Lily James (who headlined 2015's Cinderella and 2016's Pride and Prejudice) as Churchill's secretary Elizabeth Layton, Stephen Dillane (The Hours, Game of Thrones, and Merlin in 2004's King Arthur) as Halifax, and Samuel West (who played George VI in Hyde Park on the Hudson) as Churchill's friend Anthony Eden.

To keep this review short, let me point out the Three Scenes that Made It For Me and leave it at that - except just to mention that it has a very powerful visual style and elicits award-worthy performances from several actors, especially Oldman. As to those three scenes - and by the way, SPOILERS AHEAD!!!

(1) The king pays a surprise visit to Churchill in his bedroom, when the P.M. is at the end of his rope and is feeling completely powerless and alone. Viewing it from Churchill's point of view (in spite of a knowledge of history that would prove otherwise), my gut, as the king entered the room, told me: "This is where George VI asks Churchill to step down." Then, amazingly, he sits down next to Churchill on the edge of his bed and whispers, "You have my full support." I actually burst into tears at that point, so strongly did I feel what that moment meant for Churchill.

(2) Acting on a hint from the king, Churchill impulsively bolts from his limo and rides the Underground to Westminster, chatting up the common people along the way. What he finds out from talking to them, added to what he learns later by polling the "outer cabinet" at Westminster, emboldens him to stand up to the War Cabinet that has been trying to undermine his policy "to wage war at all costs."

(3) The scene in which Churchill hides in a closet (a water closet, actually) and phones Franklin D. Roosevelt. It is not a scene that presents the U.S., or F.D.R., in a favorable light. But in a very powerful way, it visually conveys Churchill's frustration, isolation, and helplessness at what the film's title very aptly - in spite of the years of Luftwaffe shelling that followed - describes as his nation's darkest hour.

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