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part of a small rebellion | by maryann johanson

Darkest Hour movie review: a surrender to open-and-shut history

Darkest Hour yellow light

MaryAnn’s quick take…
A feature-length Oscar clip, two hours of Gary Oldman stomping around in a Winston Churchill suit. There’s too little drama and too much inevitability in what amounts to a reanimated Madame Tussaud’s waxwork scene.tweet
I’m “biast” (pro): nothing
I’m “biast” (con): nothing
(what is this about? see my critic’s minifesto)
women’s participation in this film
male director, male screenwriter, male protagonist
(learn more about this)

Like a feature-length Oscar clip, Darkest Hour is two hours of Gary Oldman (The Hitman’s Bodyguard, Child 44) stomping around in a Winston Churchill suit. Cigars are chomped, put-upon secretaries are shouted at with studied histrionics, and less iconic politicians are smote verbally. It’s all fine as impersonations go, I guess, but there’s not much drama in what amounts to a Madame Tussaud’s waxwork scene that’s somehow been magically animated.

We should feel the weight of the imminent collapse of Western Europe, of impending surrender and defeat, and we don’t.
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Which is very odd given how hugely important the events depicted are. Set over a few critical weeks in May 1940, the newly minted prime minister has to decide whether the United Kingdom can avoid the fate of continental Europe, now overrun by the Nazis, by giving in to peace negotiations with Hitler — as Tories led by Viscount Halifax (Stephen Dillane: Game of Thrones, Zero Dark Thirty) and just-resigned PM Neville Chamberlain (Ronald Pickup: The Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time) are pushing for — or whether to fight on. We know from history how it played out, but Anthony McCarten’s anemic script could have made Churchill work a bit harder for that decision; it feels like a done deal from the get-go. We probably should have a bit more of a sense, too, that the “collapse of Western Europe is imminent,” as one general says. We should feel the weight of impending surrender and defeat, and we don’t.

“Let’s see, what’s the nicest way to paraphrase Churchill is an alcoholic beast so that it sounds charming?”

“Let’s see, what’s the nicest way to paraphrase Churchill is an alcoholic beast so that it sounds charming?”

There’s an inevitability to Darkest Hour that is disappointingly anticlimactic… and that includes the clichéd depictions of Churchill’s wife, Clemmie (Kristin Scott Thomas [Suite Française, My Old Lady], wasted here), and his new secretary, Elizabeth Layton (Lily James: Baby Driver, Pride and Prejudice and Zombies), as women who adore him even though he is “insufferable” and “an awful brute” to both of them. We are long past the time in which this is an acceptable way to portray such women, as one-note caricatures slavishly devoted to men, no matter how “great” they are.

The film is gorgeous to look at, but is that even appropriate? Director Joe Wright (Pan, Anna Karenina) has visually romanticized a moment in time that the film is trying to tell us was precarious and terrifying; this should be a movie dripping with anxiety, and it isn’t. The most interesting thing about Darkest Hour is how it serves as a flipside to this summer’s Dunkirk, filling in some of the background about why all those British soldiers were stuck on that French beach, and how their evacuation was organized. This movie will be a welcome break from lectures in middle-school history classes in a few years, but it’s pretty dry even as history lessons go for the rest of us.


Click here for my ranking of this and 2017’s other theatrical releases.



yellow light 2.5 stars

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Darkest Hour (2017) | directed by Joe Wright
US/Can release: Nov 22 2017
UK/Ire release: Jan 12 2018

MPAA: rated PG-13 for some thematic material
BBFC: rated PG (mild bad language)

viewed at a semipublic screening with an audience of critics and ordinary moviegoers

official site | IMDb | trailer
more reviews: Movie Review Query Engine | Rotten Tomatoes

If you’re tempted to post a comment that resembles anything on the film review comment bingo card (now updated for 2017’s trolls!) you might want to reconsider.

  • Jurgan

    Yeah, that’s what I was afraid of. This is such a well-known part of history that it’s hard to make it new.

  • Jorge Montero

    Wow! Now you just proved that you can write. Good luck with the reviewing task. You have a long way to walk. A really looong way. At least, I can tell I didn´t waste my time with the first lines.

  • Bluejay

    Instead of sarcastically insulting someone you disagree with, how about explaining what you liked about the movie?

  • Danielm80

    Jorge has to hurry along and tell the next person that they’re a jerk and a real kneebiter.

  • Bluejay
  • Derek Mansfield

    I think the reviewer must be quite young. I found the film to be an emotional tour de force.

  • Danielm80

    I don’t follow your reasoning. If you’re saying that MaryAnn is too young to be familiar with the history, her review makes it clear that that isn’t true.

    If you’re saying that only people who lived through the events depicted in the film can really understand the emotional impact, then anyone under…let’s say 80…is too young to appreciate the movie.

  • Gunning

    I agree 100% with your review. The ambience of the movie is too much like a period drama. There is no attempt to convey any kind of terror (which would have been a natural response to the events taking place in Europe) and the movie is whitewashed of the darkness it claims to portray. Most disappointingly, Churchill comes across as an indecisive idiot who needs to ask people on a train for advice. The reason Churchill was chosen as prime minister was for his resolute and fearless commitment to stand up to Hitler and destroy his regime.

  • Margaret Mudd

    Unfortunately you allowed your personal opinions on how women should be portrayed in film taint your recognition and appreciation that this portrayed a period of time when a certain degree of temperament and discourse were considered acceptable, in all audiences. It was realistically portrayed, and to change it because it isn’t appropriate for the present time is ludicrous. You didn’t mention a number of scenes when his wife approaches him about his behavior, and how he responds. Nor did you recognize his reaction to his typist when she broke down in tears, or his engagement with the passengers on the train.
    To liken the production to a wax museum is farcical. Yes, period movies, to an extent, come with a dimension of inevitability. On the other hand, many revelations came to light, that even those familiar with Winston Churchill, or the events at the time, will not know well.
    For those who believe that impending terror wasn’t given sufficient weight, remember that it wasn’t so much a war movie as it was a biopic of leadership during a critical time and place in history. I ask you, what makes a movie critic qualified to perform a review because I didn’t see evidence of it here.

  • I’m 48. Is that “quite young”?

    I did not find the film to be an emotional tour de force. I don’t think my age has anything to do with it.

  • It was realistically portrayed, and to change it because it isn’t appropriate for the present time is ludicrous.

    I think you might be responding to some other critic’s review.

    You didn’t mention a number of scenes when his wife approaches him about his behavior, and how he responds.

    Oh? What about any of those scenes defy the hoary clichés of the saintly supportive wife we’ve seen more than enough of onscreen? How do any of the scenes with the secretary defy cliché?

    Or… wait. Are you suggesting that women were not fully rounded people until some point *after* World War II?

    a certain degree of temperament and discourse were considered acceptable

    Yeah, I think you actually *are* saying that. Incredible.

  • RogerBW

    Someone meeting this period through this film is coming in half-way through the argument. Churchill’s own memoirs are all about “of course we stood firm and united”; as various documents were declassified it became apparent that plenty of politicians were scrabbling around trying to get Roosevelt and even Mussolini to try to negotiate a peace with Hitler, and only gave up because it was clear that it wouldn’t leave Britain in any better state than fighting and losing would. So the film is a part of that second wave, but without knowing what it’s reacting to I suspect it will make less sense.

  • Gunning

    It’s difficult to tell from your comment who you’re addressing and who you’re referring to. Personally, I have read every single volume of Churchill’s account of the war and have even been in Churchill’s underground war rooms. If it is, as I suspect, me to whom you are referring, it’s naive and patronizing, not to mention deluded, of you to presume that this movie was my introduction to the history of that time. I am perfectly aware that there were, as portrayed in the movie, efforts made by certain individuals to push for peace. You seem to have not only missed the point of what I said in my comment, you seem to be trying, as do the writers of this movie, to rewrite your own version of history if you think that Churchill entertained any notions of a peacy treaty with the Third Reich.

  • Gunning

    What a pathetically patronizing reply. Or at least it might be patronizing if the rest of your argument actually made any sense. Isn’t it rather obvious that there would be some politicians “scrabbling around” in a vain push for peace? My point, which you have clearly missed, is that Churchill was not one of those politicians. And the whole reason why they were “firm and united” was that those politicians realized (or were convinced by Churchill) that such efforts for peace were not only futile but contrary to Britain’s interests (not to mention her spirit).

  • Margaret Mudd

    I am not suggesting that at all. I think you missed my point. In my opinion, the female roles are not cliche and we may just agree to disagree. Women can be supportive of their partners, disapprove of their behavior, and communicate that in ways that are commonly illustrative of different time periods. I thought that the female roles were portrayed appropriately for this film. Over time, women have found alternative ways and forums to speak and share their opinions. It is unfortunate that you extrapolate my commentary to the point of suggesting women were not fully rounded people until after WWII.

  • Bluejay

    we may just agree to disagree.

    Well, that’s a civil and mature thought. Interestingly, it doesn’t quite square with your original (very rude and personally insulting) comment: “I ask you, what makes a movie critic qualified to perform a review because I didn’t see evidence of it here.” A pity you didn’t simply decide to “agree to disagree” before posting it.

  • Margaret Mudd

    You’re right and I apologize for that comment.

  • Over time, women have found alternative ways and forums to speak and share their opinions.

    But they don’t in this movie. That’s a problem.

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