Darkest Hour

You mean it wasn’t when we dumped your tea into Boston Harbor? Awwwww.

G ee, I wish I knew more about Winston Churchill. If only the movies would help me out a little. In case you missed it, the two most consistent themes in 2017 cinema are Winston and Wonder. I’ve lost count on films where Churchill showed up, but this is his second biopic of the year and it’s a minor improvement, but nothing to shame Nazis about.

As an American, I am fully aware that at the time of our revolution, George III was absolute monarch of England, waging war by little more than personal whim. In 2017, however, the Queen of England is little more than figurehead. She appears on money all over the world, sure, but other than apparently needing to be saved constantly, she doesn’t do much. [Why does the Queen need saving so often? What is she … some sort of daredevil? X-gamer?] So somewhere in between King George III and Queen Elizabeth II, political power in England shifted from the throne to the Prime Minister and Parliament.  I know this has been a gradual process, yet I would have guessed that the bulk happened in the 19th century. That thought is reinforced by films like The King’s Speech, where King George VI is treated politically as little more than metaphorical wallpaper. However, Darkest Hour was quick to point out Winston Churchill ranked #2 in the U.K. behind King George VI (Ben Mendelsohn), was appointed by the King himself after Neville Chamberlain’s resignation, and deferred reverentially to the George VI as any good British citizen would.

This is the dynamic that begins Darkest Hour. Chamberlain recommended that George VI appoint Churchill as PM for his relative popularity among all political parties. George wasn’t pleased with the idea, but went with it, and Winston Churchill became Prime Minister of England mostly on the strength of his (very astute) insistence for years that Hitler was a problem. It sure wasn’t for Churchill’s war record, which most notably included a British disaster at Gallipoli in WWI. Forgive me, Brits, if my understanding of your history isn’t as sharp as it could be.

All this political crap is, unfortunately, important as Darkest Hour spent at least a dark hour exploring the popularity of Winston Churchill (Gary Oldman) among his peers. Ooooo, is he gonna push war? Will Chamberlain steer his parliament funk to cheer Winston on? No? Aw, poor Winston.  Poor bombastic, bloodthirsty Winston. It almost goes without saying this film would have played better if the perils of Winston Churchill were not already front and center in cinematic minds.

Two women play significant roles in Churchill’s life: his wife Clementine (Kristen Scott Thomas) and his private secretary Elizabeth (Lily James).  The latter seems his only link to the outside world. Winston had made it to 65 years of age having never ridden the Underground, which seems both amazing and snotty. This is generally what I dislike the most among elected Americans; if you have no sense of how common people live, how can you possibly lead them?

These are the roles people take to win awards and Gary Oldman has probably missed out on a few over his chameleon-like career. He makes a pretty good Winnie, both abusive and kind, domineering and forceful. In only one scene did I find myself saying, “Oh yeah, there’s Gary Oldman. I see him now.” Of course, the seven pounds of makeup and fat suit didn’t hurt.  It’s very possible he will garner a nomination here; I cheer that, but mostly for past slights, not necessarily for his work here.

Darkest Hour gave us the Neville Chamberlain (Ronald Pickup) of hawkish taunt. As would be Hitler appeasers, he and Viscount Halifax (Stephen Dillane) conspire to undermine Churchill by making the PM declare in public that he won’t consider peace talks. Conservative war mongers must be having a field day over that one.  For much of this century, they lectured us on the slippery slope of all tyrannical forces. How many times were we told that merely putting sanctions on Saddam Hussein and letting him play with his toys is the moral equivalent of Chamberlain ceding Europe to Hitler; the only thing dictators understand is strength. Of course, these hawks been mostly silent since America elected its own homegrown orange would-be tyrant in 2016. And if the next word out of your mouth is “Obama,” you -quite clearly- neither understand democracy nor the English language. Anyway, this film will give war fans something to be happy about again.

For me, this film took nearly forever to get to the part I wanted to see: Churchill with the people. It wasn’t a bad film to that point, but it was hardly a masterpiece. Whatever new ground Darkest Hour ventured into was quickly enveloped within politics and outcomes we already know. To love this film, I think you have to bring a fair amount of Winnie baggage to the table; otherwise, enjoy the performance and maybe the climax.

♪Ah, now I don’t hardly know him
Aside from this screen “gem”
Winston and Wonder

Ah, new when he comes waddlin’ under
Beneath WWII thunder
Winston and Wonder, war tears asunder

Winston and Wonder
Evading a blunder
Winston and Wonder
World War 2 plunder
Winston and Wonder
More? I will chunder♫

Rated PG-13, 125 Minutes
Director: Joe Wright
Writer: Anthony McCarten
Genre: Churchill encore!
Type of being most likely to enjoy this film: Hawks
Type of being least likely to enjoy this film: Nazis

♪ Parody Inspired by “Crimson and Clover”

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