“If you’re going through hell, keep going”: A review of Darkest Hour

Never give in, never give in, never, never, never, never — in nothing, great or small, large or petty — never give in except to convictions of honor and good sense. — Winston Churchill

I can think of few better ways to spend July 4th in 2018 than to watch a movie about the United States’s mother country rising against tyranny. It certainly seems like we could use some inspiration. Directed by Joe Wright and released in 2017, Darkest Hour is a film about not only the power of words but the man behind those words that mobilized a nation. According to Wright, the impetus for the film was to create context for three of the most famous English speeches that all took place during the first five and most important weeks of Churchill’s time as prime minister.

The time of the film is World War II, and the Allies have been forced to retreat from disastrous losses in Norway. Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain has lost the confidence of Parliament and steps down, believing the prime minister should have the support of all parties of government. Winston Churchill is the obvious choice for his successor as he enjoys the support of all the parties, not just his own.

Not everyone is thrilled with Churchill’s appointment, though. Thought of as a drunkard and the architect behind the Great War’s disastrous Battle of Gallipoli, many people felt his decisions were a “litany of disaster” as King George VI, played by Ben Mendelsohn, calls it in the film. The actors skillfully capture the awkwardness and humor between the king and Churchill in their initial meeting when the two try to schedule weekly meetings. The king asks Churchill to meet at 4:00 every Monday. Churchill looks less than pleased and responds, “I nap at 4:00.” The king asks, “Is that permissible?” to which Churchill replies, “No, but it is necessary.”

Internationally, the mood about Churchill is also uncertain. In one early scene, the French call him delusional after he asserts to them that the Panzer tank incursion does not constitute an invasion as there are no German troops following their advance. Much of the British government seems to agree with the French as a plot forms against Churchill to try to force his resignation for his policy of “Victory at all costs,” preferring negotiation with Hitler to secure some type of independence for the island nation even as the rest of Europe falls.

It is really through the eyes of the women in his life that we see Churchill the man. Lily James plays his secretary Elizabeth Layton, who in real life followed Churchill through his entire career as prime minister, and it is through her eyes that we see Churchill’s singular wit and idiosyncracies that prevent the film from becoming too heavy. The elegant Kristin Scott Thomas plays Churchill’s wife who urges him onward to follow his convictions even as she struggles to keep the family going and to pay the bills. There is a subtext here of female contributions to the war even as they are obviously and systematically excluded from most of the places in the War Rooms and from formal politics as a whole in Britain.

I would be woefully remiss not to mention the outstanding work of Gary Oldman in playing Winston Churchill. He does not just play Winston Churchill, he transforms into Churchill. Through the magic of Kazuhiro Tsuji’s makeup and prosthetics, we are able to see Oldman’s every twitch and expression while seeing the shape and proportions of Churchill. At one point, I naively wondered if Oldman had gained weight in order to play this role. Both Oldman and Tsuji took home Academy Awards for their work in this film and rightfully so.

I am not a scholar of Winston Churchill, and I cannot vouch for what is true or not in the film beyond facts about the war itself. That is far from the point of this film. It captures the moods of a nation, the torment of being in power during wartime, and the power of language to make a difference in the course of human events. In a time when talk seems cheap and disposable, when there is very little listening and a whole lot of orating, it is refreshing to see the effect that crafted language can have among people who listen. This is a film about the importance of resistance in the face of overwhelming odds and the difficult decisions people of conscience in power have to make in order to achieve “victory in spite of all terror.” We might have declared our independence over two hundred years ago, but perhaps we should consider what advice British history has to offer us about opposing tyranny.

5/5 stars. Recommended. Available on DVD.