The Darkest Hour: or 2 Hours and 5 Minutes of White Male Tears

You win some, you lose some goes the old adage. Well, today I lost one. Specifically, I lost 3-1 for the irregularly annual Christmas Day movie choice. You see, I wanted to see Star Wars again because my mom is a devoted fan (not to mention, I enjoyed my first and so far only viewing). However, we were at a 2-2 impasse… until my sister suggested The Darkest Hour which promptly and unsurprisingly won because my sister, her boyfriend, and my mom are all history nerds.

So to The Darkest Hour we went. And boy was it a dark hour, well 2 hours and 5 minutes to be specific. If I were forced to sum up this movie in one sentence it would be “Gary Oldman masterfully mumbles and bumbles as Churchill through smoky, dimly lit rooms with other old white men.” But I’m not forced to use only one sentence, so a few more follow.

My first problem with The Darkest Hour is not entirely its fault but rather that of the arc of history. If my previous summary doesn’t clearly indicate, diversity is severely lacking in this movie. This is to be expected. However, this lack is made especially problematic when the only women in the film, the most compelling characters in my opinion, are used as tools to demonstrate the emotional depth of Churchill. This comes across most obviously in a scene with his typist, Elizabeth played charmingly by Lily James, wherein he learns her brother died retreating to Dunkirk. This scene is not about Elizabeth or the pain she may have experienced but rather is used to demonstrate that Churchill may, after all, have a heart. I would much rather have seen a movie focus on her perspective – the uncertainty of living in WWII England working for a prime minister who is somewhat of a war monger but ends up on the “right side of history”. Maybe someone else will get on making that film.

Until then, we have another Churchill movie that wants you to feel triumphant with him (count the number of times the word victory is used). However, because it’s history, and we all know the ending, tension is difficult to build. Some historical films, such as Dunkirk, which combine fiction and fact, succeed in this regard, but The Darkest Hour fails. This, in my opinion, is largely due to the mediocre writing and subsequent pacing. The movie is basically a device used to transport viewers between Churchill’s various speeches, and honestly I found myself wishing for more of them.

Other than these speeches, the moments the movie uses to drum up emotion frequently fall flat. In one such moment, I literally laughed out loud when Chamberlain, played by Ronald Pickup, announces, without emotion or context, “I have cancer.” The most egregious example of this manipulation takes place near the climax of the film, when, in a clearly fictional account, Churchill, for no apparent reason, decides to take the Underground to Westminster. The other passengers (whose names he apparently finds time to write down though it is unclear when) are taken aback at first. With some provoking though, they encourage Winston to fight until the very end and not to enter peace talks as the Conservatives in Parliament so badly desire. In this scene, we see the use of the only black person in the film and (again)  women as props to ultimately suggest Churchill is emotionally complex. We, the viewer, are to believe he is the hero of the common people both he and the film believe him to be. It clearly worked for some as the old white male stranger next to me visibly and audibly teared up at the end.

Churchill most certainly is a historical hero, of sorts, worthy of biography; however, this film fails to provide a nuanced perspective to the story. The only nuance present is in Oldman’s performance (and maybe the few scenes of his alcoholism but those are mostly played as jokes). If you like historical films, you’ll probably enjoy this just fine as my family did. However, if like me, you want to see a more critical, or at least entertaining, take on the familiar events of the past I would look elsewhere.