Watching a movie is all about the people. Even before I watched "Darkest Hour," I knew it would be a compelling film because of these three individuals: Joe Wright, Gary Oldman, and Winston Churchill.
1. Joe Wright, Gary Oldman, and Winston Churchill
Joe Wright, the rising British director with a deep literary background, debuted with Jane Austen's "Pride and Prejudice" and later adapted Tolstoy's "Anna Karenina." But it was in 2007 with "Atonement" that he gained widespread recognition. The film combines haunting details and lush visuals, exuding an intense artistic atmosphere. Amid its elegant form, it delves into the severe themes of atonement and forgiveness. On one side, there's the turmoil of World War II, and on the other, the passionate love of Bolsheviks in their prime.
Heaven and hell, it turns out, can both be found on Earth.
The historical backdrop of "Atonement" and "Darkest Hour" largely coincides, touching on the early days of World War II and the Dunkirk evacuation. "Atonement" turns an ordinary story into an epic, while "Darkest Hour" transforms historical figures into "ordinary people." These two films each have brilliance, thanks to the director's skill.
Gary Oldman, the crowned king of actors, is a master of his craft. He portrayed Count Dracula in "Bram Stoker's Dracula," a terrorist in "Air Force One," and Beethoven in "Immortal Beloved," earning an Oscar nomination for "Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy." This time, to play Churchill, he gained a beer belly, sported a double chin, and became an Oscar winner. Gary Oldman excels in interpreting individuals with immense spiritual power. Whether it's Count Dracula, a terrorist, Beethoven, or Churchill, he brings depth and layers to his characters.
The most striking example is his role as a terrorist in "Air Force One." When you juxtapose this character with Churchill, the tension becomes apparent. One is a Soviet terrorist, and the other is the iron-willed British Prime Minister. Both characters mirror each other, each with immense spiritual strength. Gary Oldman's portrayal of the terrorist is nuanced, calm as a cucumber, yet agile as a rabbit. The contrast between stillness and action is just the superficial balance; it's the exploration of the character's inner world that showcases Gary Oldman's brilliance. Through his body language, he portrays a neurotic terrorist with such precision, making him the only "soul" in the brainless action film "Air Force One." In comparison, Harrison Ford's portrayal of the tough President feels like a caricature.
As mentioned at the start, watching a movie is about the people. When watching "Darkest Hour," you are first watching director Joe Wright, then actor Gary Oldman, and finally, the soul of the film, Winston Churchill – the cigar-smoking, V-sign-making, greasy, and portly Englishman. Churchill, in the movie, is somewhat well-rounded, showcasing both his decisiveness and his sense of humor and affability. The director's intention was not to subvert the familiar image of Churchill but to capture the intimidating power and charming prowess of this old and bald British man.
As a result, "Darkest Hour" features a series of remarkable scenes that mostly stay within the conventional framework. His fiery speeches in the House of Commons, his urgency in requesting aid from the U.S. President, and his tender moments with his wife. It must be said that Hollywood has its own set of political correctness, and portraying historical figures like Churchill can't be as imaginative as fictional characters. Churchill's on-screen image, like those "perfect" characters in revolutionary films, shares similarities. However, the director adds a layer of humanity, making it a conservative character trait. A flawless image in a movie may come across as artificial to the audience. Human nature is intricate, and if a character is excessively flawed, it can also appear distorted.
In Churchill's autobiography, "My Early Life," and his "History of the Second World War," his character is more fleshed out, closer to historical truth. To be nitpicky, the film makes Churchill seem too much like a regular person. In real life, Churchill was not a so-called ordinary person at all. His fervor for the military and his expertise in tactics were second to none, even compared to Hitler. His desire to achieve greatness on the battlefield was unrivaled in contemporary Britain. Of course, his moral compass and worldview were much more correct than Hitler's, and his grandfather and father were significant figures in the British Conservative Party.
2. Appeasement Policy, Chamberlain, and Hitler
Before Churchill, the British Prime Minister was Neville Chamberlain, who pursued the "appeasement policy." In 1938, when Hitler invaded and annexed Austria and later marched troops to the Czechoslovakian border, Chamberlain, as the leader of a significant power, was naturally outraged by the aggression. He strongly condemned, as any leader of a great nation would.
The German fascists convinced that Chamberlain and the British Commonwealth he led were all talk and no action, continued their aggression. Chamberlain also escalated his condemnations and dreamed of appeasing the Nazis. He wanted to ensure peace for the British Isles at the expense of selling out another country, Czechoslovakia. Only when Hitler dishonoured the Munich Agreement, sent his troops into Czechoslovakia, and had gone too far did Chamberlain wake up from his dreams of appeasement. At this juncture, Hitler's influence was fully established, and the intensity of World War II was about to escalate.
When evaluating the British appeasement policy, it is not necessarily about find the one to blame. Given the circumstances at the time, this policy best served British’s interest and situation then. During World War II, the British Empire, “The Empire on which The Sun Never Sets,” was already on the decline, and its position as a global superpower had long been challenged. Its domestic economy had been adversely impacted by World War I and the Great Depression, and thus, it remained in a weakened state. Moreover, the eight dominions, including Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Ireland, South Africa, Burma, and India, were not a unified front. Many of them had hidden agendas and were looking to break away. They no longer stood in complete unity with Britain but were held together due to coercion or for security reasons.
Besides Britain's actual situation, Chamberlain's temperament and character played a part in implementing the appeasement policy. Chamberlain had a difficult childhood, losing his mother at the age of six, which left him extremely introverted almost too shy to participate in school debates. Though he overcame his character weaknesses temporarily during his later years, his childhood trauma-induced character flaws were hard to eradicate. He was not socially inclined, and his interests lay in botany and ornithology. He became an aviation expert in the Royal Horticultural Society. This suggests that Chamberlain knew more about birds than people, especially Hitler. It was easy for him to be deceived.
Hitler was a madman, while Chamberlain was a gentleman. When a madman meets a gentleman, the madman will always fool the gentleman. This isn't just a matter of a difference in personal character. It contrasts good and evil, light and darkness, a gentleman, and a madman.
British literature, known for its genius, is particularly adept at creating such literary images. Those memorable characters include Mr. Darcy, Jane Eyre, and the heroines and heroes of countless stories. An old saying goes, "Gentlemen in England now abed will think themselves accursed they were not here." When a gentleman meets a madman, the gentleman will eventually think, "We were too gentlemanly."
The dark clouds of war hung low over Britain, with Chamberlain stubbornly holding onto his appeasement policy. When the situation was desperate, he had no choice but to resign, and the desperate British Parliament turned to Churchill.
3. Iron-Willed Churchill, Resolute England
Churchill's assumption of power in the crisis was a form of destiny. However, fate alone doesn't guarantee success. Only a person with an iron will and unwavering courage can change the course of history.
And so, a fat, bald man with a cigar in hand and an old suit took on the task of defending his country. The film reveals a Churchill who is both bold and somewhat comical, and his portrayal is brilliant.
The film has a scene where Churchill takes the London Underground, Britain's subway system, for the first time to consult with the public. He fully understands the situation and uses it to rally his people. Although this scene never happened in real life, it symbolizes Churchill's spirit. He could have chosen a car, but he took the subway. That subway ride, the close contact with the common people, and the fire of his speeches were all elements of his character. He told the world, "We will not yield; we will resist to the end!"
In another scene, Churchill meets with common citizens in the streets of London, gaining insight and strength from their words. He is not a distant leader removed from his people. His direct, human approach and the passion he inspires are portrayed vividly.
In real life, Churchill's leadership was even more extraordinary. When he led the British people, the British Empire had entered a period of decay and dissolution. The Suez Crisis had already indicated that the empire's fall was inevitable. It was not a matter of whether the colonies would be lost but when and how quickly.
Winston Churchill had personally witnessed the rise of the British Empire and experienced the deep grief of its decline. But his courage and spirit never wavered. When Britain faced the direst of threats, with its survival in doubt, Churchill never compromised. He not only led Britain through the storm, but he also stood firm against totalitarian aggression, embodying the spirit of a lionhearted fighter.
When Chamberlain appealed to Hitler, his response was to continue the German invasion. When Churchill stood against Hitler's tyranny, his response was to persevere. This stark contrast speaks volumes.
It is the British spirit that endures, the British spirit of dignity and defiance. When Britain stood at the edge of the abyss, Churchill's arrival was no accident. It was a meeting of destiny and character. And it was the character that saved Britain.
4. Conclusion: Watch the Soul of Churchill
To assess "Darkest Hour," we must first understand its nature. It is not a war film but a character-driven film. It portrays Winston Churchill in the darkest hour of British history, celebrating the character and spirit of a great man. The film draws out the essence of Churchill, capturing his charming demeanor, resolute spirit, and humanity. It is also a depiction of the British people's indomitable will to fight.
Viewers who expect intense battle scenes and heroic warfare may feel somewhat disappointed. "Darkest Hour" primarily focuses on Churchill's role and his personal development, which, in turn, helps the audience understand the critical decisions made during that historical period. The film invites viewers to explore the inner world of Churchill, observe the complex political situation, and appreciate the essence of leadership in times of crisis.
"Darkest Hour" is a beautifully shot film with an exceptional performance by Gary Oldman as Winston Churchill. It excels in portraying the charisma and complexities of Churchill's character and provides valuable insight into leadership challenges during a time of war. If you are interested in history, character-driven dramas, or outstanding performances, "Darkest Hour" is worth watching.