Film Review: Darkest Hour (2017)
Opening Scene: A heated debate is raging in the British Parliament: Clement Attlee, head of the opposition Labour Party, explains to British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain what he thinks of his appeasement policy and explains his condition for a coalition government: His condition is called Winston Churchill. (Not Lord Halifax, as favoured by the Conservatives.) Thus, Churchill is present in the film before he even appears for the first time.
In the next scene, Winston Churchill, working in bed while having a cigar, scotch and breakfast and yelling at his writing assistant, is convened by telegram to meet King George VI on 10 May 1940. The latter appoints him as the prime minister, undercooled, unspectacular and reluctant. After the obligatory kiss on the hand, he wipes it off – badly concealed- at the back hem of his suit.
The now English Prime Minister is affectionately called ‘Pig’ by his wife ‘Clemmie’ (Clementine Churchill) in selected scenes. And ‘Pig’ does not have much time to get used to his new job: German troops and tank divisions conquer Belgium and the Netherlands, in Dunkirk 300,000 French and British soldiers (nearly the whole British Expeditionary Forces) are surrounded by Guderian tanks; in Calais 4,000 men are sacrificed by Churchill in order to secure the evacuation of Dunkirk (Operation Dynamo). He must defend himself against Chamberlain’s and Halifax’s intrigues, at the same time convincing Parliament (especially his own party) and the British people that war is the only way to save Europe (“Blood, Toil, Tears and Sweat”) and the world from “that maniac”.
The film is based on John Lukacs’ “Five Days in London, May 1940” and covers the period between Churchill’s inauguration and his speech “This was their Finest Hour” (later also the title of the second volume of his war memoirs) on 18 June 1940. A time marked by the fall of France, which Churchill referred to as “The Darkest Hour”. Despite this framework, the film has but primarily one single topic: Winston Churchill. ‘Pig’ works, whether from bed or bathtub; he dictates his telegrams and speeches to the young assistant Elizabeth Layton. He is cheered up by ‘Clemmie’, affirmed by Anthony Eden or filled up during lunch with George VI. Even when he is not in the picture for once, the camera shows conservatives in parliament complaining about Churchill’s change to the liberals, his viciousness or his role in the “Gallipoli Campaign”.
Towards the end, the noble Sir Winston Leonard Spencer-Churchill, who grew up aristocratically, dares to take a (fictitious) subway ride for the first time in his life. Like Henry IV, he mingles with the people to find out their opinion and makes up his mind. Because the opinions of his war cabinet, above all Chamberlains and Halifax, who want to plan a peace with Germany with Italy in the role of mediator, no longer interest him. He wants to know what the English population – represented by Mr. Baker, Jessie Sutton, Abigail Walker, Marcus Peters, Agnes Dylan and Alice Simpson in the train – thinks of a war. Following the advice of a war-rallying ten-year-old girl, he wins the approval of the Foreign Cabinet, the Labour Party and finally of Chamberlains, as well as his own party, one after the other. The war against Germany was an election and not a necessity. The film presents it as a long-lasting election campaign run by Winston Churchill.
But after the fall of France, Britain stands alone, says Churchill. A (splendid) isolation that will be turned to again today in Great Britain (in a less militant sense), at least politically and economically.
Operation Dynamo, the rescue of most of the 300,000 soldiers in Dunkirk by fishing boats, is a success. Lord Halifax is deported to Washington as a diplomat, the epilogue informs after Churchill leaves Westminster Hall in the last picture to the thunderous applause and flying white notes for his speech “We shall fight on the beaches“. And he faces the finest hour.
The cineastic omnipresence of Churchill’s figure leaves little room for other people. Most likely for his faithful wife Clementine or the fictitious typist Elizabeth Layton, whose brother dies in Dunkirk. Perhaps Anthony Eden, as Foreign Minister a member of the War Cabinet, who always holds Churchill in high esteem.
The European microcosm of the London moment is at best implied. The Dutch Queen Wilhelmina, the Norwegian King Haakon VII or the Belgian Prime Minister Hubert Pierlot are already in London, but remain unmentioned. But when Churchill meets Paul Reynaud in an airplane hangar during a short expedition to France and fails in his attempt to encourage the resigning French president to continue fighting, a man wearing a moustache and a cap is seen sitting in the background. It might have been de Gaulle. But, in the narrative of this film, there is only room for one strong character: Churchill.
*featured image: The Prime Minister Winston Churchill and his wife, Clementine, sit on board a naval auxiliary patrol vessel as it travels down the Thames towards docks in east London on 25 September 1940.
© IWM (H 4367)