Darkest Hour follows Winston Churchill in historical flick

by Father James Gross

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“Darkest Hour” directed by Joe Wright, starring Gary Oldman. 2 hours, 5 minutes.

Winston Churchill (1874-1963) is a historical figure whose legacy seems to grow, not diminish, with time. I have wondered whether most of what I have come to know about the twice-elected British Prime Minister is embellishment. I have heard that he was an energetic orator with more than his share of eccentricities. He provided his fellow citizens with bold and courageous leadership during some of the nation’s most harrowing periods.

The film Darkest Hour sets its sights on a nearly month-long period during May of 1940, and was among my most satisfying movie-going experiences of the past year.

Several acting performances stood out for me. Gary Oldman, Commissioner Gordon from the recent Batman series, disappears into the character of Churchill seamlessly. My only critique with Oldman’s physical portrayal is that, although stooped in posture and using a cane, his Churchill walks and climbs stairs briskly, like a man only half his age, and I found his spryness distracting and hard to believe. Nevertheless, Oldman conveys a certain social awkwardness akin to an absent-minded professor that comes across as adorable, despite his irascibility and intemperate appetites for alcohol and tobacco. Kristin Scott Thomas plays Churchill’s wife Clementine, a devoted partner who proves herself his equal in wit during their rare scenes of dialogue.

I especially enjoyed the performance of Lily James, whose young secretary Elizabeth Layton overcomes her timidity and becomes a sort of confidante to Churchill through the long hours of typing dictated correspondence and strategic planning. Her pluckiness and steady loyalty helped to confirm his instincts to resist Hitler instead of capitulating to his regime, as many continental governments had already done.

The historical centerpiece on which the film is based is the rescue of hundreds of thousands of British troops from the French coastal city of Dunkirk ahead of advancing Nazi forces—an event captured dramatically in a summer 2017 blockbuster motion picture.

Darkest Hour chooses to follow the new Prime Minister Churchill rather like a video diary, allowing the viewer intimate access to the process by which he wrestled over the decisions he had to make. The movie succeeded in transporting me to the era of the city of London some 75 years ago. I found myself basking in the sight of vintage cars, motorcycles, and architecture, including the lavish appointments of the residence of King George VI.

Many critics have registered complaints about a climactic scene during which Churchill took a subway ride and conducted a sort of “man-on-the-street” interview of the commoners onboard. When they responded to his questions with patriotic pride, Churchill returned to Parliament confirmed in his own resolve to fight the Axis allies and not surrender. These critics contend that, since the event did not actually take place, inserting it was not only a contrivance, but a blatant manipulation of the audience in order to tug at their heartstrings. This decision did not bother me quite as much, but it is helpful to know that the “subway scene” is the product of artistic license.

Lastly, I was grateful for the accessibility of the film’s content to a wide audience. Aside from only a couple of mild profanities, there were no egregious displays of immorality. Darkest Hour does not aim to promote any religious agenda, but the characters display an unquestionable air of propriety and respect. So much of what passes for entertainment nowadays gratuitously inserts offensive material, when one could tell the story just as effectively without any such garbage.

I heartily encourage families to watch Darkest Hour on DVD or their favorite streaming service.

Father James Gross is the pastor of St. Mary’s Church in Grand Forks.