When viewing historical events in retrospect, it’s easy to conclude that things worked out the way they did because they simply had to. One antidote to this type of thinking is to consider what things looked like to the people making crucial decisions while those events were actually taking place, with no assurance as to what the outcome would be. Film is a particularly useful tool to encourage this kind of thought experiment, because seeing things on the big screen is about as close as you can come to experiencing events for which they were not present.
Joe Wright’s Darkest Hour exemplifies this type of filmmaking, as it attempts to portray, in considerable detail, the actual political situation of Great Britain in May 1940. In that crucial month, Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain was replaced by Winston Churchill, the British Expeditionary Force in France was surrounded by Nazi troops, and British politicians debated what tack to take on the war—negotiate peace with Germany or fight on with all the resources they could muster. It’s an interesting companion piece to two other recent films touching on other aspects of this period, Dunkirk and Their Finest. While Dunkirk is all visceral action and Their Finest gentle satire, however, Darkest Hour is mostly talk, focusing on political negotiations between the faction who wanted to sue for peace and those who wanted to fight, no matter how great the losses might be. (Fun fact: the evacuation at Dunkirk was also featured in a memorable set piece in Wright’s 2007 film Atonement.)
There’s much to enjoy in Darkest Hour, but also much to criticize. My main problem with this film is that it mixes together aspects of two different kinds of film, and the different parts don’t work well together. Film #1 is a highly-stylized art house piece full of cinematic flourishes (extreme close-ups, dramatic overhead shots) and well-executed set pieces that are enjoyable enough by themselves (Wright is the master of the cinematic set piece) but don’t add up to a satisfying narrative. Film #2 is a talk-heavy re-enactment of the events of May 1940, with beautiful period detail and brilliant speechmaking, including many of Churchill’s best-known phrases. This second film often feels like a stage play incompletely adapted for the screen, not least in the way events are created to dramatize Churchill’s decision-making process; one scene in particular, while effective by itself, is unnecessary and time-consuming, not to mention preposterous (it’s the equivalent of a parachute journalist quoting his cab driver to give some local color to his report). One further negative result of the two-films-in-one dilemma is that Darkest Hour is much too long at 125 min., due largely to Wright trying to cram in the competing requirements of two different types of film.
Darkest Hour is a fairly explicit piece of Oscar bait, but that’s not entirely a bad thing, even if it doesn’t achieve true greatness (I predict a nomination for Gary Oldman as well as several in the technical categories). After all, lots of people enjoy period pieces that touch on big themes and are full of detailed historical recreations, and this type of film can also serve as an excellent actors’ vehicle. The latter is certainly the case with Darkest Hour, which features excellent performances by Oldman as Churchill, Kristin Scott Thomas as his wife Clementine, Lily James as Churchill’s secretary Elizabeth Layton, Ben Mendelsohn as King George, and Ronald Pickup as Neville Chamberlain. The technical elements are also superb, including cinematography by Bruno Delbonnel, production design by Sarah Greenwood, art direction by Nick Gottschalk, and costume design by Jacqueline Durran.
The most obvious audience for Darkest Hour will be history buffs who already know about the events portrayed in this film, but are willing to overlook the liberties Anthony McCarten’s screenplay takes with the historical record. Those whose knowledge of World War II begins in 1941, on the other hand, may not understand just what is at stake in these tense negotiations, or how different modern Europe might look had Britain chosen to embrace Chamberlain’s rather than Churchill’s approach. And if you don’t get that, it’s all a series of public school boys debating with each other over who gets to be the next king of the mountain. | Sarah Boslaugh