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Darkest Hour

TedFlicks Rating: ★★★☆☆

$10.00 ticket on a scale of $0 to $15.00


Despite the hoopla over “Darkest Hour,” the highly publicized release about four critical weeks, from 9 May to 4 June 1940, in the Second World War, pic does not live up to its billing.

Here’s the problem.  Helmer Joe Wright and scribe Anthony McCarten took too many liberties with the facts.  This may well work for uneducated or very young auds, but it will not work for those who know their history.

Pic covers the period from the Nazi invasion and conquest of France to the necessary — and largely successful — evacuation of British and French forces by sea from the northern European port of Dunkirk, which took place over a few days at the beginning of June.  Roughly 350,000 soldiers were rescued from Nazi entrapment in a thing called “Operation Dynamo.”

In military terms pic is fairly accurate.  It is in the political and personal matters that it strays seriously from the truth in order to hype dramatic tension.  For some the fictional account will suffice.  It will even be welcome.  If one knows no history it is a great skein.  But this story is a tad too important to twist.  It is the beginning of the battle that will ultimately decide whether the free world would be subject to Nazi dictatorship or halt Nazi aggression.  As Winston Churchill (Gary Oldman) later said, “He [Hitler] will have to break us in this island,” in order to achieve world domination.  The Dunkirk evacuation gave the British Empire the means to hold him off.

Pic has two running themes centering on Parliamentary positioning which dominate the plot.  The first maintains that Foreign Secretary Lord Edward Halifax (Stephen Dillane) and former Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain (Stephen Dillane), who resigned on 10 May, conspired to force a vote of no-confidence in Churchill in the Commons based on a flimsy appeal for mediation in the war either with Mussolini or US President Franklin Roosevelt.  The idea was that Churchill would lose the vote if he refused to entertain such overtures.  That would have put him out of office and made Halifax the most obvious successor.

Halifax had a problem, and he was well aware of it.  As a peer he was not allowed to address the Commons where the most important decisions would be made.  He said as much both to Chamberlain and to the King.

Chamberlain was unable to continue in office not only because the Labour Party would not serve with him in a coalition but also because he was dying of cancer.  He would not live to see 1941.  Skein is correct on both issues.

The most believable reason for their political intrigue against Churchill is this:  Halifax and Chamberlain did not wish to see England lose a battle against Germany for its home islands.  They wanted to buy time after the French collapse.  It was then and remains today an ill-conceived plan.  Churchill, as pic makes evident, said that any weakness shown to Germany could be fatal to British democracy.  One could call Churchill “realist.”

Opening reel is mostly exposition.  It benefits from title cards showing the date — 9 May 1940.  Churchill berates a new secretary moving her to tears.  His wife Clementine lectures him about manners.  He dictates from bed.  As of 9 May he was still First Lord of the Admiralty, in charge of the Royal Navy.  He would not become Prime Minister for another day and a half.  Some chitchat among Tories in Parliament establishes Churchill’s checkered career — he had been an MP for 40 years and in and out of government for more than 30 and had been associated with at least one wartime disaster.  Lensing by Bruno Delbonnel is very effective in a film noire way.  Principals are lit far more than settings.  Score by Dario Marianelli is appropriately foreboding, but it goes overboard.

Skein’s liberties include the following:

On becoming Prime Minister Churchill issued a brief order:  “Nobody Moves.”  That means that he remained at Admiralty House and Mr. Chamberlain remained at No. 10 Downing Street.  This lasted for over a month.  Pic has Churchill at No. 10 on assuming office.

Winston Churchill was no Hamlet beset by indecision.  There is no historical evidence that Churchill ever entertained peace overtures with Germany other than to string Halifax and Chamberlain along for just enough to kill the idea.  In fact, though his personal intervention he talked Chamberlain out of the scheme while a number of Tory defeatists still supported it.

Churchill never entered the London Underground.  The scene on the subway where he gauges the stomach of the people for war and restores his courage is entirely contrived.

The King (George VI, Ben Mendelsohn) did not visit Churchill in the attic of No. 10 Downing Street in order to give him a pep talk.  They King would have summoned Churchill to the Palace.  And Churchill was not living at No. 10 at the time.

Pic excels in all technical aspects.  The House of Commons had to be recreated because filming is not allowed there and because it was bombed during the War and not rebuilt until at least five years later.  It looks different from it looked like in 1940.  Kudos to production designer Sarah Greenwood.

Wardrobe and makeup are excellent — particularly for Gary Oldman who had to be padded and wigged to play Churchill.  Your critic regrets that space does not permit the dozens responsible for these feats to named.

The story of Operation Dynamo is faithfully captured.

Much has been made of Oldman’s portrayal of Churchill.  It is good.  But he is up against some stiff competition.  They include Michael Gambon (“Churchill’s Secret,” TV), Robert Hardy (“Winston Churchill: The Wilderness Years,” TV), and Simon Ward (“Young Winston,” a 157 minute [!] pic based on “My Early Life.”

By far the best of the on-screen Churchills is Richard Burton (“The Gathering Storm,” TV, based on the first volume of Churchill’s Second World War memoir).  It is impossible to forget that one is watching Richard Burton, but it has never been possible to forget Richard Burton.  It’s like watching John Wayne or Frank Sinatra or Katharine Hepburn.  They are stars, deservedly so.  Burton’s outstanding performance may have something to do with being a Welsh subject of the Crown during the period of the TV movie, but it is not just pitch perfect.  Burton channels Churchill.  It is too bad that the TV pic is no longer in general circulation.

At 125 minutes “Darkest Hour” may be long, but it is hardly oppressively so.  Rated PG-13 there is nothing in it that is inappropriate for youngsters, although they may fail to understand the historical setting.


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