Or Dunkirk Part II
I’m still resisting the idea movie reviews will ever be a regular feature of this site, but after watching this December’s Darkest Hour I did feel something needed to be said. Especially since I commented on Dunkirk this last summer.
This movie is focused almost entirely on Winston Churchill’s first month as Prime Minister, which means it mostly covers the same ground as Dunkirk. Obviously the focus is very different, apart from a few very brief cut-scenes there are no actual combat sequences this time. Given what a nit-picker I am about hardware issues that may be a good thing… although I should mention when Churchill flies to meet meet French leadership immediately after taking office he is shown in a Dakota; without checking references I’ll say I think it should have been a Dragon Rapide or something else older, smaller, more British. Talk about nit-picking!
But this is really a character driven drama. Even more than Dunkirk a better parallel might be The King’s Speech. The portrayals here are fascinating and very well done. This Churchill (Gary Oldman, almost unrecognizable in significant make-up) is easy to like and admire. The other main movers and shakers here are Chamberlin (Ronald Pickup) and Halifax (Stephen Dillane), who also get somewhat sympathetic treatment. The natural wisdom being war is bad, makes it easy to relate to those who push for peace at any price. Chamberlin in particular seems clear eyed about what he wants for posterity. Other things I’ve read are much less sympathetic towards Halifax who continues to push for peace even if it means a humiliating armistice. Most writers seem to sum him up as pro-German; the more layered presentation here shows the appeal of his position, even if he is flat wrong in dealing with Nazis. And that leads to the climax as Churchill has doubts if he can resist if he looses his entire army.
Another significant character in the story is King George VI (Ben Mendelsohn) whose relationship with Churchill starts strained, and quite amusing, but grows and changes more than any other in the film.
There are also two critically important female characters. Churchill’s wife Clementine (Kristin Scott Thomas) brings out the great man’s more human side and is the sort of completely awesome partner anyone could hope for. The most humble and “ordinary” character in the story is Elizabeth Layton (Lily James), Churchill’s personal secretary who is new to the job at the start which means a lot of learning and narration we as the audience get in the story are channeled through her. Although I believe the real Elizabeth Layton actually started after the events of this movie, and was an older more experienced secretary/steno than this implies. Still, it was good device and source of entertainment throughout.
Overall this was an excellent film. I felt much less burned by technical gripes than I was in Dunkirk and would actually rate this somewhat higher partly as a result of that. But even more because I loved the focus on characters and personalities. Normally Dave’s rating scale involves numbers of explosions, but this is proof its possible to make a good movie based on characters and story. Now hopefully it won’t win any awards or I may have to take all of that back!