Darkest Hour tells the story of Winston Churchill’s first few weeks as Prime Minister in the spring of 1940. Hitler has just invaded France and Belgium, and is heading for an unexpectedly complete and swift victory. All the indications point to what would become the nation’s darkest hour, not only of the time, but in its history.
The Allied army is surrounded at Dunkirk with the British Navy unable to evacuate them. Attempts to persuade the French that the Nazi army could be pushed back, even defeated, are seen as delusional. The consensus, with the exception of Churchill’s assertion, is that the military situation is dire. If, as appears the case, the troops cannot be evacuated over the Channel, the Allies will lose almost its entire army to prisoners of war, at best.
Churchill comes under increasing pressure from his political opponents, as well as allies, to initiate peace discussions with Germany. However, he considers this to be tantamount to surrender, or at the very least, collaboration with the Nazis. Chamberlain and Halifax are arguing in favour of appeasement as being the best outcome they could hope for. They stress that it is simply wishful thinking to hold out for anything better. It is during these heated exchanges that Gary Oldman (playing Churchill) delivers one of my favourite lines in the film; the character is reflecting on his decision to put together a war cabinet of ‘contrasting’ views. In exasperation, he bangs his fist on the table:
“Gentlemen, I purposefully surrounded myself with a range of opinions, it seems I grossly over did it with those that oppose me”.
The drama continues and, as we now know, despite massive opposition, Churchill’s passionate advocacy won over Parliament and the King as well as the people. His daring decision to evacuate the surrounded armies from Dunkirk by expropriating hundreds of privately owned civilian sailing vessels changed the course of history.
For me, Darkest Hour was an entertaining piece of political drama, more than an epic movie about WWII. As with many films recounting a true story, facts are often punctuated by fiction; the ‘amusing’ scene on the underground stands out, but is heart-warming in our current political climate. And that is surely where we are being encouraged to draw parallels?
The film avoids portraying the gravity of the situation on the ground, the threat to British civilization and its people, in favour of political debate on the options to deal with it. Perhaps the film would have been stronger were we to have ‘felt’ the weight on Churchill’s shoulders, not just been told about it? It also misses the opportunity to recount the King’s call for a Day of Prayer and Repentance throughout the British Empire during the height of the crisis. It is recorded that this led to some miraculous weather that grounded the German air force and enabled Britain to rescue its troops (ref: Dr Peter Hammond).
However, many are predicting an Oscar for Gary Oldman’s rousing and poignant portrayal of this great statesman – an honour he will surely receive. Alongside a strong, but mostly underutilised cast, he delivers patriotism, humour and pathos and, in his character, no shortage of what we would refer to today as ‘spin’ to achieve his objectives. It is a film well worth seeing and a great illustration of the importance of perseverance and standing up to and defeating evil.
Find out where the film is being shown near you at darkesthour.co.uk