Historical drama ‘Darkest Hour’ is marred by unmotivated character choices

December 29, 2017

By Matthew E. Milliken
Dec. 29, 2017

Darkest Hour, Joe Wright’s new historical drama about Winston Churchill’s becoming leader of Britain during the outbreak of World War II, has almost all the ingredients of a great movie.

The cast, led by a prosthesis-covered Gary Oldman as a then-untested prime minister elevated as German forces threaten to engulf all of Europe, is uniformly excellent. Director Joe Wright (AtonementPride & Prejudice) and screenwriter Anthony McCarten (The Theory of Everything) have well-regarded previous works. The sets, props and costumes seem authentic. The problem, I fear, is that McCarten’s script strives for an effect that it fails to earn.

The story begins on May 9, 1940, as an opposition party member speaking before a raucous Parliament demands the resignation of Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain (Ronald Pickup) after his policy of appeasement has proven ineffective at containing Nazi aggression. In a meeting, Chamberlain and other Conservative party leaders agree to designate Churchill as his replacement.

Churchill brims with confidence and has a long record of service, but otherwise he hardly seems fit for leadership. A prodigious eater and heavy drinker who switched between the Conservative and Labor parties before going back again, Churchill — then in his mid-sixties — has a reputation for saying things that the English establishment would prefer not be said.

Churchill also has a long list of fiascos in his past, among them proposing an expedition during the Great War that led to the massacre of nearly 60,000 British and allied troops at Gallipoli. (Incidentally, this tragic battle is commemorated in director Peter Weir’s excellent 1981 movie, Gallipoli, starring a then-unknown Mel Gibson.)

However, Churchill has spent years warning of the Nazi threat, and he seems to be the only man acceptable to the opposition. King George VI (Ben Mendelsohn, the villainous Krennic in Rogue One), agrees to appoint Churchill, whom he despises, because there seems to be no other option.

Churchill — who is breaking in a new secretary, Elizabeth Layton (Lily James) — quickly forms a war cabinet and begins taking the reins of power. Confidential briefings soon inform him that the state of the war in Europe is far worse than the public understands. Essentially the entire British army is deployed in France, which is on the verge of succumbing to a combination of quick advances by Nazi tanks and a relentless pounding by German bombers. British troops are retreating to the French coast, but there is no plan to evacuate them to safety.

Chamberlain and Viscount Halifax (Stephen Dillane) urge Churchill to engage in negotiations with Hitler while the army remains largely intact. The prime minister’s steely resolve begins to falter after he orders 4,000 soldiers to engage in a futile attack against Nazi forces in order to keep the Germans from focusing on the bulk of the British army, which is holing up at Dunkirk.

So far, so good. But as Churchill figuratively lives through his darkest hour, the movie offers a ray of light: The king visits Churchill’s estate to offer his full support, regardless of what the prime minister decides to do. The moment is inspiring, but it also seems completely unearned. What, I wondered, did Churchill do to earn George’s confidence? Why would the king choose to back Churchill over his friend Halifax? When and how did George and Winston suddenly develop a faintly chummy relationship?

Something similar happens with Layton, whom the abrasive Churchill nearly drives away in humiliation in their very first encounter. At a key point during the prime minister’s crisis of confidence, when he stumbles over his dictation, she reassures him that the words will come because they always do for him. Later, as Churchill delivers a rousing, defiant speech to Parliament in the final scene, we see Layton silently mouthing the words as the prime minister speaks.

The movie does a bit more to establish how Layton’s attitude toward the British leader evolved, and it implies that Layton helped Churchill write this speech. Even so, I was dumbfounded to see Layton basically pumping her fist during the oration. This seems hokey and clichéd, a bit like the love interest cheering the football player–protagonist during the big game; it also felt largely unmotivated.

In this, Darkest Hour shares a key failing with McCarten’s last movie, The Theory of Everything. As I wrote about that feature:

McCarten and company seem to be so intent on crafting an upbeat and even inspirational ending that the emotional arc we’re shown doesn’t quite match up with anything that we’ve seen depicted on the screen.

This is a shame, because Darkest Hour has so many compelling elements. But its recipe wasn’t fully thought through, and the final product suffers as a result.

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