Darkest Hour (film)
Theatrical release poster
|Directed by||Joe Wright|
|Written by||Anthony McCarten|
|Music by||Dario Marianelli|
|Edited by||Valerio Bonelli|
|Box office||$150.9 million|
Darkest Hour is a 2017 war drama film directed by Joe Wright and written by Anthony McCarten. Set in May 1940, it stars Gary Oldman as Winston Churchill and is an account of his early days as Prime Minister during World War II and the May 1940 War Cabinet Crisis, while Nazi Germany's Wehrmacht swept across Western Europe and threatened to defeat the United Kingdom. The German advance leads to friction at the highest levels of government between those who would make a peace treaty with Adolf Hitler, and Churchill, who refused. The film also stars Kristin Scott Thomas, Lily James, Ben Mendelsohn, Stephen Dillane, and Ronald Pickup.
The film had its world premiere at the Telluride Film Festival on 1 September 2017, and it was also screened at the Toronto International Film Festival. It began a limited release in the United States on 22 November 2017, followed by general release on 22 December, and was released on 12 January 2018 in the United Kingdom. The film grossed $150 million worldwide and received mainly positive reviews from critics, especially with regard to Oldman's physical transformation and acting, with many considering it to be one of the best performances of his career.
The film earned Oldman his first Academy Award for Best Actor, as well as the BAFTA Award for Best Actor in a Leading Role, the Golden Globe Award for Best Actor – Motion Picture Drama and the Screen Actors Guild Award for Outstanding Performance by a Male Actor in a Leading Role. At the 90th Academy Awards the film earned six nominations, including Best Picture, and won for Best Actor and Best Makeup and Hairstyling. At the 71st British Academy Film Awards it received nine nominations including Best Film and Outstanding British Film.
In May 1940, the opposition Labour Party in Parliament demands the resignation of British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain for being too weak in the face of the Nazi onslaught. Chamberlain tells Conservative Party advisers that he wants Lord Halifax as his successor, but Halifax does not feel the time is right. Chamberlain is forced to choose the only man whom the opposition parties will accept: Winston Churchill, the First Lord of the Admiralty, who had correctly predicted the danger from Adolf Hitler before the war.
Churchill tries to dismiss his new secretary Elizabeth Layton for mishearing him, which earns him a rebuke from his wife Clementine. King George VI, who strongly distrusts Churchill due to his support for his brother Edward VIII during the Abdication Crisis, reluctantly invites him to form a government. Churchill includes Chamberlain (as Lord President of the Council) and Halifax (as Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs). That day, Germany invades Belgium and the Netherlands.
Churchill has a poor reputation in Parliament because of his record in the Admiralty, his role in the Gallipoli Campaign in the First World War, his views on India and his past defection to the Liberal Party. Parliament reacts coolly to Churchill's first speech promising "Blood, toil, tears and sweat". Chamberlain and Halifax are appalled by Churchill's refusal to negotiate for peace, and begin to plan to resign from the government to force a vote of no confidence, creating a situation in which Halifax would presumably become the Prime Minister. After they attempt to force him to admit this in writing, Churchill reminds Chamberlain of his role in the 1938 Munich Agreement and the failure of appeasement.
Churchill visits French Prime Minister Paul Reynaud, who thinks Churchill delusional for not at least admitting that the Allies are losing the Battle of France, while Churchill becomes furious that the French do not even have a plan to counterattack. Although U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt is sympathetic to Churchill's plight, he is limited in action by an isolationist Congress and the Neutrality Acts. Churchill draws ire from his cabinet and his own advisers for delivering a radio address in which he falsely implies the Allies to be winning the war, earning him a rebuke from the King. Halifax and Chamberlain continue to push to use Italian Ambassador Giuseppe Bastianini as intermediary to negotiate with Germany.
The British Expeditionary Force is trapped at Dunkirk and Calais. Against the advice of the War Cabinet, Churchill orders Brigadier Claude Nicholson in Calais to lead the 30th Infantry Brigade in a rear guard action to distract the enemy and buy time for the soldiers at Dunkirk to evacuate. Layton's brother is killed during the retreat.
The debacle in France causes the War Cabinet to support negotiating with Germany. Under heavy pressure, Churchill agrees to consider a negotiated peace, but is unable to bring himself to dictate a letter requesting peace with Hitler. George VI unexpectedly visits Churchill; the King explains that he has come to like Churchill, and encourages him to continue the war. Still uncertain of what to do, Churchill impulsively rides the London Underground (for the first time in his life) and asks the startled passengers their opinion; the civilians unanimously want to continue to fight. Churchill meets with the Outer Cabinet and other Members of Parliament, and receives their support. The evacuation of troops from Dunkirk, Operation Dynamo, is successful.
As Churchill prepares to address Parliament, Halifax asks Chamberlain to continue with their plan to resign, but Chamberlain decides to listen to the address first. Toward the end of his speech, Churchill proclaims that "we shall fight on the beaches" should the Germans invade. Chamberlain decides to support Churchill, and Parliament applauds the Prime Minister's defiance. The film ends by stating that Operation Dynamo rescued almost all of the 300,000 allied soldiers; Chamberlain would die of cancer in December 1940 while Halifax would be dismissed from the war cabinet and instated as the Ambassador to the United States; and that the Allies would finally defeat Germany in May 1945, after which Churchill was voted out of power in the general election.
- Gary Oldman as Winston Churchill
- Kristin Scott Thomas as Clementine Churchill
- Lily James as Elizabeth Layton
- Stephen Dillane as Viscount Halifax
- Ronald Pickup as Neville Chamberlain
- Samuel West as Sir Anthony Eden
- Ben Mendelsohn as King George VI
- Richard Lumsden as General Ismay
- Malcolm Storry as General Ironside
- Nicholas Jones as Sir John Simon
- David Schofield as Clement Attlee
- Hilton McRae as Arthur Greenwood
- Benjamin Whitrow as Sir Samuel Hoare
- Joe Armstrong as John Evans
- Adrian Rawlins as Air Chief Marshal Dowding
- David Bamber as Admiral Ramsay
- Paul Leonard as Admiral Dudley Pound
- Olivier Broche as Paul Reynaud
American actor David Strathairn provided the voice of President Roosevelt, heard on a phone call with Churchill. Samuel West is credited as playing “Sir” Anthony Eden, though Eden did not become a knight until 1954, when he was appointed to the Order of the Garter. This was the final film role for Benjamin Whitrow, who died, aged 80, a few days after the September premiere of the film.
On 5 February 2015, it was announced that Working Title Films had acquired Darkest Hour, a speculative screenplay by The Theory of Everything screenwriter Anthony McCarten, about Winston Churchill in the early days of World War II.
On 29 March 2016, it was reported that Joe Wright was in talks to direct the film. In April 2016, Gary Oldman was reported to be in talks to play Churchill. On 6 September 2016, it was announced that Focus Features would release the film in the United States on 24 November 2017, while Ben Mendelsohn was set to play King George VI and Kristin Scott Thomas was cast as Clementine Churchill. On 8 November 2016, Stephen Dillane joined the cast.
By November 2016, Darkest Hour had begun principal photography, and it was reported that Dario Marianelli would score the film. For his role as Churchill, Oldman spent over 200 hours having make-up applied, and smoked over 400 cigars (worth about $20,000) during filming. Filming took place in Manchester, England at both the Town Hall and John Rylands Library, both doubling for the Houses of Parliament and feature heavily in the film.
John Hurt was initially cast as British prime minister Neville Chamberlain. However, according to Oldman, Hurt was undergoing treatment for pancreatic cancer and was unable to attend the read-throughs. Ronald Pickup assumed the role of Chamberlain instead. Hurt died from cancer in January 2017.
For locations, the exterior of Chartwell House in Sevenoaks, Kent was used for the telegram sequence that sees Churchill's secretary Elizabeth Layton receive a telegram from Buckingham Palace. Fort Amherst in Kent featured as the location for both General Ramsay's Operations HQ and the Calais Garrison.
Darkest Hour grossed $56.5 million in the United States and Canada, and $93.8 million in other countries (including $33.4 million in the UK), for a worldwide total of $150.2 million.
In the United States and Canada, the film began a limited release on 22 November 2017. In its first five days, it grossed $246,761 from four theatres (an average of $61,690), finishing 21st at the box office over the weekend. The film had its wide release on 22 December 2017, alongside the openings of Downsizing, Pitch Perfect 3 and Father Figures, and the wide release of The Shape of Water, and grossed $3.9 million from 804 theatres over that weekend, and $5.5 million over the four-day Christmas frame. 85% of its audience was over the age of 25, with 30% being 50 or older. The following weekend the film made $5.5 million, and a total of $7 million over the four-day New Years frame. The weekend of 27 January 2018, following the announcement of the film's six Oscar nominations, it made $2.1 million.
On review aggregator website Rotten Tomatoes, the film holds an approval rating of 85% based on 298 reviews, with an average rating of 7.31/10. The website's critical consensus reads, "Darkest Hour is held together by Gary Oldman's electrifying performance, which brings Winston Churchill to life even when the movie's narrative falters." On Metacritic, which assigns a weighted average rating to reviews, the film has a normalised score of 75 out of 100, based on 50 critics, indicating "generally favorable reviews". PostTrak reported that over 90% of audience members gave the film a rating of either "excellent" or "very good".
Oldman was praised for his performance, with numerous critics labelling him a frontrunner to win the Academy Award for Best Actor, which he would go on to win. Peter Travers of Rolling Stone wrote: "Get busy engraving Oldman's name on an Oscar... those fearing that Darkest Hour is nothing but a dull tableau of blowhard stuffed shirts will be relieved to know that they're in for a lively, provocative historical drama that runs on its own nonstop creative fire." David Ehrlich of IndieWire praised Wright's direction and the musical score, writing: "Unfolding with the clockwork precision of a Broadway play... it's a deliciously unsubtle testament to the power of words and their infinite capacity to inspire."
Conversely, Brian Tallerico of RogerEbert.com called the film "an acting exercise weighed down by costumes, make-up, and over-lighting", adding that "there's nothing new to the approach. It feels often like an obligation—a story that someone felt should be told again and a way to get a great actor his Oscar".
Writing in Slate, historian and academic John Broich called Darkest Hour "a piece of historical fiction that undertakes a serious historical task", presenting the British decision to fight Hitler as a choice rather than as inevitable. The situation in 1940 was as dire as depicted, but liberties were taken with the facts. The on-screen shouting matches over possible peace negotiations were fictional. The journey on the London Underground was also fictional, and there is historical evidence that most British people were not immediately inspired by Churchill's speeches. George Orwell believed that ordinary people already felt subjugated and might not object to a "new order".
There is no conclusive evidence that Chamberlain and Viscount Halifax were planning an imminent vote of no confidence, though that threat existed until the mid-war victories in North Africa. It is a fact that Churchill was an object of suspicion for his fellow Tories. The Labour Party confirmed that they would serve in a national government under another leader than Chamberlain, but did not name Churchill.
In The New Yorker, Adam Gopnik wrote: "…in late May of 1940, when the Conservative grandee Lord Halifax challenged Churchill, insisting that it was still possible to negotiate a deal with Hitler, through the good offices of Mussolini, it was the steadfast anti-Nazism of Attlee and his Labour colleagues that saved the day – a vital truth badly underdramatized in the current Churchill-centric film, Darkest Hour". This criticism was echoed by Adrian Smith, emeritus professor of modern history at the University of Southampton, who wrote in the New Statesman that the film was "yet again overlooking Labour's key role at the most dangerous moment in this country's history ... in May 1940 its leaders gave Churchill the unequivocal support he needed when refusing to surrender. Ignoring Attlee's vital role is just one more failing in a deeply flawed film".
Referring to Charles Moore's comment that the film was "superb Brexit propaganda", Afua Hirsch wrote in The Guardian: "I would call the film propaganda, more generally – and a great example of the kind of myth we like to promote in modern Britain. Churchill has been re-branded as a tube-travelling, minority-adoring genius, in line with a general understanding of him as 'the greatest Briton of all time'." Hirsch also criticized the film for "perpetuating the idea that Winston Churchill stood alone, at the Darkest Hour, as Nazi fascism encroached, with Britain a small and vulnerable nation isolated in the north Atlantic. In reality the United Kingdom was at that moment an imperial power with the collective might of Indian, African, Canadian and Australian manpower, resources and wealth at its disposal."
The film gives the impression that both Clemmie and the King were able to listen to the 'beaches' speech live from Parliament. This was impossible because radio broadcasts from Parliament did not start until the 1970s. Whilst Churchill did record the speech for posterity, he did not make the recording until 1949. Nor did he, unlike some other speeches, repeat that speech on the radio shortly after giving it in Parliament.
Awards and honours
Gary Oldman has said that there is talk of a sequel to Darkest Hour that could also include President Franklin D. Roosevelt (who had been voiced by David Strathairn in Darkest Hour) and take place during the Yalta Conference in 1945.
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