Film Review: “Darkest Hour”

Great, a film about Churchill and about World War II! A movie for which even this student of history can leave the desk for a few hours without a guilty conscience. And off to the cinema I was. There, the first disappointment: notwithstanding that I came to watch a film about Churchill, I was still not permitted to smoke cigars in the theater.

124_characters20aw_g20oldman20darkest20hourBefore we start, let me prepare you for the second disappointment: Darkest Hour is no comprehensive Churchill biopic, not even a comprehensive Churchill-in-World-War-II film. It only deals with a few weeks in May 1940, from Churchill’s appointment as Prime Minister until the rescue of British soldiers trapped in Dunkirk. But that’s the topic of a separate recent movie.

Because this blog has often been accused of negative defeatism in its reviews, I will start with something positive: Churchill is not portrayed as a simple heroic figure, but as a human being with weaknesses. His politics is guided by clear principles, but a plan he has not. Or, to quote one of his critics in the film, he has a hundred new plans every day. Viewers are also reminded of the Battle of Gallipoli, a disastrous landing campaign in World War I based on one of Churchill’s grand ideas. I don’t know if contemporary viewers know much about this, if they know anything about World War I at all. Myself, I only learned about it in Australia, when I watched a military parade one April 25th to commemorate that internecine battle in Turkey, where in 1915 almost all young men from Australia and New Zealand of that time lost their lives.

But I digress. Which may be, and that brings us to the end of the positive part of this review, because Darkest Hour doesn’t manage to captivate me. Gary Oldman has been much lauded for his portrayal of Churchill, but I fail to see why. For example, it’s obvious that he detests smoking and often holds the cigar in his hand or mouth unlit.

At least that part I could have portrayed  with more pleasure.

One of the secretaries receives far too much space, as if she was the second lead character. Miss Layton, played by distractingly beautiful Lily James, of course has a brother in Dunkirk, causing her to shed the odd tear while typing orders. Churchill notices that and takes her into the top secret map room, where he explains to her (and to the viewers who may still not have gotten it and who may also need helpful signs to understand where Belgium and the Netherlands are) once again how dramatic the situation is.

That’s quite tacky.

It becomes unbearably tacky when Churchill goes to work on the tube (which is of course not historically correct) and strikes up a conversation with a clichéd cross-section of the British public (a bricklayer, a young mother, an even younger couple, a colored subject of the crown), all of whom reinforce his will to never surrender. Even a toddler calls out “never!” because the front in France and the fight against fascism are more important to him than strawberry ice cream. Even in Soviet propaganda films, I have never seen such an implausible scene.

Save yourself the two hours. You will spend the money more wisely if you buy Winston Churchill’s own book about World War II. That’s not quite objective either, but Churchill was not only a brilliant orator, but also a good writer. In 1953, he received the Nobel Prize for Literature for his World War memoirs.

Or you will use the money saved by not going to the cinema for a trip to London to visit the Cabinet War Rooms, the underground headquarters shown in the film (charging a whopping entrance fee of 18.90 £ though), and the Imperial War Museum (free admission).

(This review was also published by Medium. – Hier gibt es diese Filmkritik auf Deutsch.)

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About Andreas Moser

Travelling the world and writing about it. I have degrees in law and philosophy, but I'd much rather be a journalist, a spy or a hobo.
This entry was posted in Films, History, UK, World War II and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

23 Responses to Film Review: “Darkest Hour”

  1. Pingback: Filmkritik „Die dunkelste Stunde“ | Der reisende Reporter

  2. Sukanya Ramanujan says:

    Andreas, go watch the Post instead. Brilliant film! And thanks for the tip- I will avoid this one.
    About the battle of Gallipoli, I also learnt about it only when I was working with the Australian government. We used to organise memorial services for Anzac day and it was nice to be part of the team that worked on the 100th anniversary events in India. We organised viewings of ‘The Water Diviner’- Russel Crowe’s film which touches upon Gallipoli but at least doesn’t pretend to be a genuine historical film.

    • Oh yes, I have been very curious to see “The Post” indeed!
      Being part of the memorial services for the anniversary must have been interesting. I hope there were still some veterans alive. I was in Australia in 1992 and it happened to be ANZAC Day, so my host family and me went to the parade where I first heard about Gallipoli. I also remember that there were mainly war films on TV that day.
      Indian soldiers in both World Wars is of course a whole other story about which I know practically nothing, Eurocentrist as I have been educated.

    • Sukanya Ramanujan says:

      In fact we curated a photo exhibition about Indo-Australian links and we got a few photographs from the Australian archives of Indian soldiers alongside Australian ones. In fact one of the criticisms of the recent film Dunkirk was how it portrayed only white soldiers whereas the reality was far from it. I haven’t seen the film but this is what I heard

    • I haven’t seen “Dunkirk” either, but that’s an important point to look out for!

      Are you a historian?

      I just know about the Indian Legion that fought for Germany in World War II, but of course with much smaller numbers than for the British.

    • Sukanya Ramanujan says:

      As much as I would love to say yes I’m a historian, I’m not. I rediscovered history as an adult.

    • Sukanya Ramanujan says:

      Oh it’s never about the age- I believe in constant learning but I have way too many interests and wouldn’t know what to sign up for- history? geography/ geology? languages? science? I feel I’m better off outside the formal framework of academia with self-learning. Anyway there’s just so much material available online these days and MOOC I feel it pointless to enroll. Plus I already have two Masters and I think a third would be excessive.

    • Then it sounds like it’s time for a PhD. ;-)

    • Sukanya Ramanujan says:

      Working 3-4 years on one theme would just drive me insane

    • Yes, it would need to be a super-interesting subject, preferably even relevant for society. For the first criteria, I actually have plenty of ideas, but the second one will probably have to be sacrificed. Anyway, who knows what society needs in 3 years or so?

  3. I’m quite sure you’re right about the movie, but I love seeing people not able to smoke. So I think I’ll go give my money to the popcorn boy and the movie.

  4. Harsh review!!! :(

    We thought the film excellent: very engaging and very well done (it’s a movie, not a documentary!), thus “in the spirit of”. Re cigars! – maybe he is savouring the moment he will light it with pleasurable anticipation – my father, who lived cigars, often did that.

    I thought the script was (for once!) extremely well written, and the lighting fantastic, plus very good casting throughout. But interesting to hear your views…

    • ​But people who are seriously addicted to cigars (like Churchill and me) wouldn’t carry them around for hours.
      And why carry it around at all? He doesn’t need to show off. And he has plenty of cigars at home and at the office, so it’s not like he needs to take one every day, like a lunch box.

      I also don’t believe that kings suddenly pop up in one’s bedroom at midnight.

      Even though it’s not a documentary, it should at least be credible. And children telling the Prime Minister on the underground that they will never surrender (not really knowing the military situation) wouldn’t really sway a cabinet vote, one would hope. No, even Monty Pythons depicted interactions between the king and the peasants more credibly: https://andreasmoser.blog/2011/08/22/king-and-peasants-discuss-monarchy/

    • Andreas, wouldn’t cigars have been rationed at that time??? Would they not have been considered a luxury item? (Or maybe not, according to this: https://www.theguardian.com/notesandqueries/query/0,,-197459,00.html)!

      What time do kings pop up in your bedroom then, if not at midnight – haha.

      I agree that any suspension of disbelief shouldn’t be necessary on the audience’s part, in a film about a historical subject. But I have a different interpretation of the child. I agree he wouldn’t understand the issues. I think he was just joining in with the “herd” (or in this case, “heard”) mentality, copying emphatically whatever the adults around him were saying, whilst not understanding the issues at all. That could certainly happen in real life.
      Or perhaps the filmmakers wanted to make it clear that the scene on the tube was playfully “in the spirit of”, rather than literal? — Or maybe that Churchill dreamed it!

      As a student of history, you will know better than I whether the rest of the film was historically accurate….

      My mother went to his lying-in-state: I remember that it was a big deal.

  5. David says:

    The fact that you weren’t allowed to smoke at a Churchill movie is indeed outrageous. In fact, they should have given out cigars and scotch to all the viewers. :-)

  6. Anonymous says:

    Bill Clinton liked cigars as well but could not always recall what he did with them. As regards schmaltzy, revisionist, sentimental thinking, my sons attended three years of British primary school. In their History lessons and books there was nary a mention of American involvement in WWII.

    • Maybe they didn’t get to 1941? ;-)
      But that’s actually a very interesting observation! To leave out one of the main Allied powers is quite some distortion, almost like in Soviet historiography. And if even American involvement was not mentioned, I bet the Indian and other colonial troops mentioned by Sukanya above were not mentioned at all.
      But even I am still learning something new all the time. It was only in South America that I learned about a Brazilian division fighting alongside the Allied powers in Italy, for example.

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