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Darkest Hour and Churchill

a review of the Churchillian duo

by Peter Hunt


I've just seen "Darkest Hour" and saw "Churchill" a few months ago. Rather like "Their Finest" and "Dunkirk" they make an interesting pair, that cover slightly different subjects but with a lot of similarities, although "Their Finest" and "Dunkirk" are much better movies than the Churchillian duo.


WARNING: CONTAINS SPOILERS (Well... Only spoilers if you didn't pay attention in history class.) 


"Darkest Hour" with Gary Oldman covers Churchill in what is now known as the May 1940 War Cabinet Crisis with the Brits deciding whether or not to negotiate with Hitler as everything goes wrong in France. "Churchill" with Brian Cox covers Churchill in the days before D Day in 1944.


Gary Oldman is getting lots of Oscar buzz for his portrayal but I'm not quite sure why. His Winston Churchill came across to me more like Winnie the Pooh and the Really Bad Day, whereas I thought that Brian Cox nailed it. Both did well portraying the booze and the irascibility, and what a nightmare Churchill must have been to work for, and his ability to turn on the charm. Both covered the "black dog" of depression well, (and in this case in three short scenes Oldman outdoes Cox, so, OK, perhaps the Oscar buzz isn't too far off.)


Clementine Churchill, (played by the equally deliciously elegant Kristin Scott-Thomas and Miranda Richardson respectively,) steals both films. Whatever you think about the movies as a whole the ladies repay the price of admission.


"Darkest Hour" obviously had a lot more money spent on it, with some interesting CGI zoom in and pull out shots, (well the first three times are interesting, then it gets a bit predictable,)  whereas "Churchill" has a "made for TV" feel, for example, when Monty gives a rousing speech to all eight soldiers of the 21st Army Group. 


So what's not to like? Well, the history, the history and the history....


"Churchill" is by far the worse offender taking Winston's obsession with a "soft underbelly" attack on Germany through the Balkans from 1942 and 1943 and transposing it onto May 1944 with him trying to derail D Day just before it kicks off.... absolute tosh and despite the great acting it lost me the movie. You can't do a historical biopic without the history and this flick is largely fantasy.   


The history in "Darkest Hour" is more ambivalent. The debate over negotiating with the Nazis brokered through the Italians really happened but it was not an ambush scenario in the War Cabinet set up by an evil Halifax and an evil Chamberlain to depose Churchill and install Halifax. Many shared Halifax's view and Chamberlain supported Churchill. This odd set up of the movie actually underplays Churchill's courage because Halifax's position was a reasonable one with a lot of popular support, Churchill's position was the right one, but the risky one.


In addition to this fundamental point there are also a few jarring (a)historical bits in "Darkest Hour." Churchill is made to speak bad French when in fact his French was very good. There is no mention of him proposing an Anglo-French Union. He is given sole credit for thinking up and implementing the Dunkirk evacuation with even Admiral Ramsey having to be convinced of what a jolly good idea it would be to call up the little boats. And, for reasons completely beyond me Roosevelt is trashed for purportedly leaving Britain in the lurch with no mention of "Cash and Carry," and providing the high octane avgas that won the Battle of Britain.  


You could argue that these plot lines are included for dramatic effect but they add nothing to the drama, Hitler and the Nazis were the enemy that Churchill was fighting, not Halifax and Roosevelt, and by throwing these in the real drama and threat is diminished. 


The denouement of "Darkest Hour" is very strange. With his black dog of depression dispelled by a high ranking and new-found chum visiting in the middle of the night, followed by a trip on the Tube declaiming Lord Macaulay's "Horatius" that is straight out of "Paddington 2," Churchill briefs and wins over the Outer Cabinet. Meanwhile, that very same day, the nasty Halifax and duplicitous Chamberlain are intending to bushwhack  Winston in the House with a threat to resign and bring on a vote of no confidence. However Churchill extemporises the "We Shall Fight Them on the Beaches..." speech in the back of his car, delivers it, the uproarious response of support for Winston thwarts the two baddies' plans and we all live happily ever after.


Erm, not quite....


The reason it is called the May War Cabinet Crisis was because it happened in May. Halifax did threaten to resign over negotiations, Chamberlain acted as a mediator between the two, siding with one, then the other, and Churchill did outflank them both by getting the support of the Outer Cabinet. The decisive moment came on 28th may with the Outer Cabinet briefing and the knowledge received that day that Italy would be entering the war anyway so they would not be honest brokering anything. From then on Halifax was back in line and so was Chamberlain who had probably never been out of line anyway. The "We Shall Fight Them On The Beaches..." speech was delivered a week later on 4th June.


Still, you should go and see "Darkest Hour" anyway.




Well the words.... The script was mostly written by one Winston S. Churchill: speeches,  lines from cabinet minutes, and a lot of the incidental dialogue and quips are all his, with one stanza from Lord Macaulay too. So much so that if the scriptwriter, Anthony McCarten is up for an another Oscar, (he got one for "The Theory of Everything,") it really should be for Best ADAPTED Screenplay. If that is not worth two hours of your time then I don't know what is. 


"Tickity Tonk Old Fruit and Down with the Nazis!" 


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