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Five Cent Cine (At Home): Darkest Hour

The power of language

It’s one of the great movie lines. It’s May 1940, Prime Minister Winston Churchill (a masterful Gary Oldman) has just whipped the British Parliament into a defend-the-island-to-the-death frenzy. A troubled Viscount Halifax (Stephen Dillane), advocate of “peace” negotiations with Hitler’s Germany, is asked “What just happened?” “He mobilized the English language,” Halifax responds, “and sent it into battle.”

That’s not all Churchill did, of course. In that speech and others, he mobilized the nation, and at a time when the destruction of the entire British army at Dunkirk appeared imminent. But Halifax’s quip accurately describes “Darkest Hour”; it’s a film about the power of language to move the human spirit. Short on action, it’s long on speeches and talk — and long on 2017 award nominations.

Short on action, it’s long on speeches and talk — and long on 2017 award nominations.

One reason for high praise is that the film doesn’t get bogged down in historical detail. Churchill’s fateful decisions at Gallipoli during World War I are barely referenced. Reminders abound of former Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain’s (Ronald Pickup) insistence on negotiating with Hitler, but there’s no mention of “Munich,” the city and agreement identified with the policy of appeasement.

Instead, “Darkest Hour” focuses intensely on Churchill the person, and especially on the psychological dimensions of a series of momentous decisions: to send 4,000 young men to sure death for the chance to save 300,000; to marshal hundreds of little boats to rescue the Dunkirk stranded; to somehow hold his fractious Tory party together; and to rally the nation to fight a war that it seemed destined to lose.

In this, Churchill has the guidance and succor of two women-–his no-nonsense wife Clemmie (Kristen Scott Thomas) and a fetching, emotional typist (Lily James). This neophyte also is our eyes and ears as Churchill dictates and mumbles in London’s underground war rooms where much of the film is set.

Emotionally, the film turns on what may be an apocryphal moment: Churchill ventures into another underground and onto the metro in an effort to assess the willingness of the average Brit to engage in all-out war — and, perhaps, to rally himself for what he knew had to be done, a speech he had to make. The scene is cloying and overdone, to be sure, but powerful nonetheless. It’s not hard to imagine the response he got.

Date: 2017

Director: Joe Wright

Starring: Gary Oldman, Kristen Scott Thomas, Stephen Dillane, Ronald Pickup, Lily James, Ben Mendelsohn.

Oscars: Won: Best Actor (Gary Oldman); Best Achievement in Makeup and Hairstyling; Nominated: Best Picture, Best Achievement in Cinematography (Bruno Delbonnel); Best Costume Design (Jacqueline Durran); Best Production Design (Sarah Greenwood, Katie Spencer).

Runtime: 125 minutes

Originally published 2/20/2018

Darkest Hour ★★★1/2 (out of 4 stars)

Availability: For rent, purchase or streaming on many platforms, including Google Play, Amazon Prime, Redbox; see JustWatch here.

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Written by 2 Film Critics

2 Film Critics

William Graebner is Emeritus Professor of History, State University of New York, Fredonia, where he taught courses on film and American culture. He is the author or co-author of 11 books and more than 50 scholarly articles, including essays on “The Treasure of the Sierra Madre,” “McCabe and Mrs. Miller,” “The Poseidon Adventure,” and zombie films as they relate to the Holocaust. Dianne Bennett, the first woman to head a large U.S. law firm, is a retired U.S. tax lawyer.

Dianne and Bill were early and passionate attendees at the Toronto Film Festival, and today enjoy the film scenes of Los Angeles, Rome, London, and Buffalo, New York. They began reviewing films for the Rome-based website “TheAmerican/inItalia” in 2016, have maintained a blog on Rome for a decade, and published two alternative guidebooks to the Eternal City. They still can’t resist going to the movies, not to mention the ensuing discussions, sometimes heated, over a bottle of Arneis at the nearest wine bar.

​And that's just the beginning of our reviewing process. For one or two hours we discuss the film, as one of us takes notes. The notetaker transcribes the notes and prints two copies. Dianne or Bill (usually depending on who had the most compelling understanding of the film, or who was most taken with it) writes the first draft of the review--supposedly taking into account the views of the other--which is followed by 3, 4, or even 7 more drafts. At some point, sometimes days later, when we're both comfortable with the result (or accepting of it, anyway), it's done.

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