“Darkest Hour” shows Winston Churchill in his finest one

Focus Features

“Darkest Hour” begins with Winston Churchill seemingly living his best life.

He spends the morning lounging in bed with his first cigar of the day, a bolt of whiskey and a champagne chaser on the breakfast tray his servant delivers. Neville Chamberlain is taking a thrashing over at Parliament, his stint as prime minister clearly over. All Churchill needs to do is loll about in his dressing gown until the Crown sends for him, and then it’ll be time to start popping corks at 10 Downing Street. Right?

A commemorative coin struck in Winston Churchill’s honor in 1965, the year he died. Photo: Jennifer Brett

Except Churchill’s time running the government was hardly one of celebration. As the film opens in 1940, Adolf Hitler’s on the march on the continent, but there’s scant appetite for conflict among Britons still traumatized by the staggering loss of lives in World War I. The tempestuous Churchill is anything but universally beloved, having presided as First Lord of the Admiralty during the disastrous Gallipoli Campaign of 1915-16.

Two decades later his detractors deride him as a reckless war monger overstating the Nazi threat. Because he prevailed, you’re reading this newspaper in English instead of German. You’re reading a newspaper at all.

Churchill’s series on WWII led to his being honored with the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1953. Photo: Jennifer Brett

“We wouldn’t be sitting here in a theater watching movies we want to watch” had Churchill, flaws and all, not been standing in the gap, noted Bill Fisher of the Winston Churchill Society of Georgia, whose members hosted an advance screening last week.

The movie, in area theaters Friday, is directed by Joe Wright (“Atonement,” “Pride & Prejudice”).

Gary Oldman is superb in the lead role, capturing the great man’s legendary antics and oratorical flourish yet putting his own stamp on them. His performance of Churchill’s famous speech is transporting. Don’t be surprised if you get choked up by the time he is talking about fighting on the seas and oceans.

Kristin Scott Thomas is exceptional, with the right blend of admiration and exasperation, as the devoted and supremely patient Clementine Churchill.

Ben Mendelsohn nicely nuanced as Churchill’s reluctant but ultimately stalwart ally George VI.

Kristin Scott Thomas and Gary Oldman as Clementine and Winston Churchill. Photo: Jack English/Focus Features

 

“Darkest Hour” is generating considerable Oscar buzz and, even better, has the blessing of Churchill’s descendants. Oldman joined great-grandson Randolph Churchill for a promotional appearance on the Queen Mary, which now features the movie’s Churchill War Rooms as an onboard exhibit, the International Churchill Society noted in a recent social media post.

Still, it’s a movie, not a documentary. Here’s the trailer:

 

“I would like to tell you this entire movie was true,” Georgia Churchill Society president Joe Wilson mused. “In reality, some parts were truer than others.”

You don’t need to be much of a Churchill scholar to guess that Britain’s prime minister didn’t really bolt from his government conveyance for an unaccompanied sally through the Underground to gauge the will of the people with the Luftwaffe due any minute. It’s a nice scene, though, one that conveys Churchill’s connection to his countrymen.

There’s no shortage of scholarly material and memorabilia inspired by Winston Churchill. Photo: Jennifer Brett

It is handy to be familiar enough with the time period to be able to assess how various figures of history are portrayed, though. (The Georgia Churchill Society’s site is a good resource if you want to bone up before the movie). Chamberlain and Lord Halifax (Stephen Dillane) are drawn rather broadly as sniveling weasels so eager to appease Hitler (with the help of their buddy Benito Mussolini) that they spend all their time conniving to undermine the man determined to defeat him. The profligate Churchill, not quite the souse the film suggests, was indeed frequently low on funds, but was Clemmie really discussing their straits in front of mixed company?

And President Franklin D. Roosevelt, appearing only as a voice on a scratchy international call, practically goes “Huh? What? You’re breaking up,” when Churchill rings him from the bathroom, desperate for America to throw in. In 1941, the year after events in “Darkest Hour” take place, Roosevelt would declare Dec. 7 a day that would live in “infamy,” following the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor that ultimately dragged America into the fight.

That was 76 years ago today.

Winston Churchill celebrates with Queen Wilhelmina of the Netherlands after WWII. This vintage photo is in my house but I am unsure who took it.

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