Film and Book Reviews

Churchill lights up darkest hour with wit, oratory

Film

By Tim Kroenert

February 5 2018

In an era where political discourse is circumscribed by the beat of the 24-hour news cycle, and where the American President tweets with little tact and less attention to grammar, the lack of leaders who can uplift their citizenry with powerfully wrought oratories is keenly felt. Perhaps that’s why we’ve seen the release of not one but two films about Winston Churchill in the space of 12 months. We look from the void of the present to find inspiration in the past.

Darkest Hour, by English director Joe Wright, is far superior to last year’s Churchill. The latter, directed by Australian Jonathan Teplitzky, was a rather stolid affair, saved in part by Brian Cox’s fine turn in the leading role. Now Gary Oldman (pictured), virtually unrecognisable in prosthetic jowls and exquisitely detailed makeup, gets to bring the great British statesman to life, and, working from a sharper, savvier script by Anthony McCarten, consigns the earlier film to history.

Darkest Hour takes place during the early days of the career politician Churchill’s prime ministership, and during the lead-up to the rescue of British troops at Dunkirk. Churchill is struggling to win the confidence of King George VI (a terrific Ben Mendelsohn); at the same time, he is resisting the urgings of his predecessor Neville Chamberlain (Ronald Pickup) and would-be successor Viscount Halifax (Game of Thrones’ Stephen Dillane) to commence peace talks with Hitler.

The film is beautifully filmed, its palette of browns and navies and many shades of grey complementing the historical setting, and evoking the darkness of the times. But the script also contains rich veins of finely honed wit that are worthy of the great orator. The film culminates in Churchill’s great ‘We shall fight on the beaches’ speech, and throughout the film his every utterance or pre-scribed speech seems to gather momentum toward that moment of rhetorical brilliance.

Perhaps inevitably, all of the film’s meatier moments go to its male characters. Nevertheless, mention must go to Kristin Scott Thomas as Clementine Churchill, through whose eyes we witness her husband’s vulnerable side; and also to Lily James, as Churchill’s personal secretary Elizabeth Layton, who suffers her employer’s idiosyncratic and cantankerous manner with quiet fortitude, yet who ultimately, pivotally, represents to him the hope his nation has placed in him.