Monday, February 26, 2018

"Darkest Hour": review

Imagine a brash politician who was in the liberal camp before seemingly turning conservative. Imagine that the media have strong doubts about him, as do his new fellow party members, who don't know what to make of him. Imagine that this politician has made enemies thanks to his blunt, aggressive, temperamental manner, and that people everywhere are bemoaning his ascension to the topmost ranks of government. Imagine that this unpopular individual is one of only a few to have the nerve to view the world situation as it is and to call it as he sees it, enemies be damned. Imagine that, despite his service to his country, the people are impatient to vote him out of office post haste.

I could go on making parallels between Winston Churchill and Donald Trump, but there are some major disanalogies, too: Trump utterly lacks Churchill's literate eloquence and scholarly knowledge, for one thing. While Trump shares with Churchill the ability to use rhetoric in a persuasive way, Churchill wielded the English language like a weapon. A former soldier and an inveterate academic, Churchill arguably did as much as Shakespeare to buttress and beautify his native tongue through his many speeches and the many books he wrote. Donald Trump, whatever his virtues and faults, will leave no such linguistic legacy, Covfefe be praised.

"Darkest Hour" picks up the story of Winston Churchill (an excellent Gary Oldman) as an old man, long past his soldiering days and on the cusp of becoming prime minister as the opposition party openly declares a loss of faith in the current prime minister, Neville Chamberlain (Ronald Pickup). Chamberlain has spectacularly failed to perceive Hitler's hegemonic intentions and seems ready to appease the German dictator, who is ruthlessly pushing his way across Europe. As the movie begins, France and Belgium are teetering and about to fall, and the Germans, already advancing through France, have surrounded British troops at Calais and Dunkirk, trapping almost the entire British Army against the sea, where it can be torn apart by the German air force, its Luftwaffe.

Churchill meets with King George VI (Ben Mendelsohn, playing the role made famous in "The King's Speech," gives the king more of a speech impediment than a stutter) on the day he assumes the role of PM. The meeting is awkward and a little chilly; George has his doubts about Churchill, whom many hold responsible for the deaths of thousands of troops at Gallipoli. Churchill also acquires a new secretary named Elizabeth Layton (Lily James, whom I saw in "Baby Driver"). Their relationship is rocky at first, but it improves over time. Meanwhile, at home, Churchill is both supported and scolded by his ever-faithful, long-suffering wife Clementine (Kristin Scott Thomas) and is doted on by their children and grandchildren. The prime minister is also attended by his loyal adjutant, Anthony Eden (Samuel West, looking properly hawkish).

Most of the movie is a buildup to one of Winston Churchill's most famous speeches: his June 4, 1940, "We shall fight on the beaches" speech to the House of Commons. A prominent thread is the machinations of the now-dethroned Neville Chamberlain and his co-conspirator Edward Wood, Third Viscount Halifax (Stephen Dillane, best known as Stannis Baratheon to "Game of Thrones" watchers), another Brit with an unfortunate inability to pronounce his "R"s. Churchill's dilemma, according to this film, is whether to acknowledge the grave reality of Hitler's advance across Europe and begin negotiations, or to reject the prospect of negotiations and go full-steam-ahead with plans to repel Hitler's massive attack. In reading the trivia on this situation, I discovered that Churchill's real-life dilemma wasn't much of a dilemma at all: he did, in fact, briefly consider negotiations with Hitler, but it was quite easy for him, in the end, to decide upon the course of action that cemented his place in history.

Not being a Churchill expert, I can't judge this film on its historical merit, but I will say that the story, as the movie tells it, is surprisingly touching. At the beginning of the film, as Churchill is being driven around London, he jokingly remarks that he has never been on a bus and has gone into the Underground only once. This remark foreshadows a moment much later in the movie, in which Churchill, on a sudden whim, leaves his limousine and descends into the Underground, determined to ride the subway to Westminster in order to speak to Parliament. This leads to a magnificent (and apparently utterly fictional) scene in which Churchill finds himself surrounded by passengers who are shocked to have the prime minister riding in the same car with them. Following the advice of King George (who eventually comes to trust Churchill because of the obvious fear that Churchill inspires in Hitler), Churchill takes advantage of his time among the hoi polloi to survey their opinions about the war: the Germans will soon arrive on English shores, so are the people willing to fight, or would they prefer to negotiate? The passengers, when faced with the prospect of ignoble negotiations, shout out a resounding "Never!"—and I, like Churchill in that scene, found myself with a big lump in my throat. It's a shame that this incident never actually occurred, but all the same, I'm glad the scene made it into the film as a powerful bit of storytelling. Consider it something like a metaphor, or something like shorthand for Churchill's ability to know the public mood. That scene alone was worth the price of admission. True: Churchill—like a certain American president—later plays fast and loose with the facts of his encounter with regular folks to rally members of Parliament before his big speech, but if you view his fabrication through a consequentialist lens, he did what he did for the greater good.

The cinematography for "Darkest Hour" is gorgeous. This, too, made my heart ache for a Europe we'll never see again. Nevertheless, the echoes of that Europe exist today, reflected in all of that old, glorious architecture. Here, too, I have no historical expertise with which to judge the accuracy of what I was seeing, but the Gestalt of all those sets and locations felt like an authentic evocation of 1940s London.

The actors are notable both for their acting skills and for, in many cases, their uncanny resemblance to their actual historical counterparts. Gary Oldman, as Churchill, endured hours upon hours of makeup to look the part, and the result is far superior to the horrific prosthetic work visited upon the great Sir Anthony Hopkins in his role as Alfred Hitchcock (you might need to see the actors in motion to appreciate the difference in quality):

When I first saw Ronald Pickup, I instantly knew that he was Chamberlain. While substantially older than the Chamberlain who appears in photographs from that era, Pickup absolutely looked like a certain infamous, debased statesman dying of cancer. Also uncanny was Ben Mendelsohn as George VI, who was costumed and made up to look almost exactly like the 1940s-era king. It goes without saying that, given this intimidating stable of great British (and Aussie, etc.) actors, the acting was always spot-on. Oldman deserves special mention for breathing life into Churchill by imbuing the character (Winston Churchill was a character, after all) with various old man's tics and quirks. The one quirk I found surprising was the slight stammer he gave Churchill. I should also mention David Strathairn, whom we never see, but who did a bang-up job providing the voice work for President Franklin Delano Roosevelt during the scene in which Churchill makes a transatlantic call in the hopes of recruiting American aid (this was in 1940; if you know your history, then you know that the United States didn't enter World War II until December 8, 1941, the following year, after the December 7 Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor).

For a movie about one of the most crucial moments in World War II, there's very little actual war to be seen. We do get a glimpse of the civilian boats that head out to Dunkirk as part of Operation Dynamo (just for a second, I was mentally transported to Christopher Nolan's film), and we watch helplessly as Calais gets bombed to smithereens by the Luftwaffe. Still, the war hangs like a pall over everything that occurs in the film, infusing and affecting that other, invisible war: the war of ideas, of negotiation versus military retaliation. Since everyone knows the history, it's no spoiler to note that Churchill's ideas triumph over Chamberlain's, and that Britain emerged bloodied but unbowed from World War II, thanks in large part to an encouraging, inspiring man who knew where he stood, and who fought for the good of his people. "Darkest Hour" gets enthusiastic plaudits from yours truly. I think you'll enjoy the acting, the makeup, the cinematography, and the clash of personalities and principles.

ADDENDUM: a condensed video bio of Churchill is here.

ADDENDUM 2: if you want to compare the respective makeup jobs of Anthony Hopkins and Gary Oldman, here's the trailer for "Hitchcock," and here's the trailer for "Darkest Hour."

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