“Darkest Hour” is best viewed before “Dunkirk” although that isn’t how the movies were released. “Darkest Hour” provides the background behind what happened at Dunkirk and its emotional significance to the United Kingdom and even all of Europe.
“Darkest Hour” takes its name from a phrase that then Prime Minister Winston Churchill coined in a speech, “Their Finest Hour,” on 18 June 1940 at the House of Commons. The speech is long and recounts both the past and the current situation of the war, but in its concluding paragraphs it notes:
We do not yet know what will happen in France or whether the French resistance will be prolonged, both in France and in the French Empire overseas. The French Government will be throwing away great opportunities and casting adrift their future if they do not continue the war in accordance with their Treaty obligations, from which we have not felt able to release them. The House will have read the historic declaration in which, at the desire of many Frenchmen-and of our own hearts-we have proclaimed our willingness at the darkest hour in French history to conclude a union of common citizenship in this struggle. However matters may go in France or with the French Government, or other French Governments, we in this Island and in the British Empire will never lose our sense of comradeship with the French people. If we are now called upon to endure what they have been suffering, we shall emulate their courage, and if final victory rewards our toils they shall share the gains, aye, and freedom shall be restored to all. We abate nothing of our just demands; not one jot or tittle do we recede. Czechs, Poles, Norwegians, Dutch, Belgians have joined their causes to our own. All these shall be restored.
What General Weygand called the Battle of France is over. I expect that the Battle of Britain is about to begin. Upon this battle depends the survival of Christian civilization. Upon it depends our own British life, and the long continuity of our institutions and our Empire. The whole fury and might of the enemy must very soon be turned on us. Hitler knows that he will have to break us in this Island or lose the war. If we can stand up to him, all Europe may be free and the life of the world may move forward into broad, sunlit uplands. But if we fail, then the whole world, including the United States, including all that we have known and cared for, will sink into the abyss of a new Dark Age made more sinister, and perhaps more protracted, by the lights of perverted science. Let us therefore brace ourselves to our duties, and so bear ourselves that, if the British Empire and its Commonwealth last for a thousand years, men will still say, “This was their finest hour.”
“Darkest Hour” begins with grainy black and white film images that reveal neat rows of Nazi soldiers, guns and tanks before we see Adolf Hitler studying a map of Europe. Hitler had been appointed Chancellor in 1933. The movie begins on 9 May 1940 by which time Hitler had invaded Czechoslovakia (1939), Poland (1939), Denmark (9 April 1940) and Norway (9 April 1940). Great Britain declared war on Germany on 3 Sept. 1939. When the movie starts Germany has yet to invade Belgium and Netherlands, but he is knocking on the door and on 10th of May in 1940, he invades them as well. Only France and the Channel are between the UK and Nazi Germany.
At the time in the UK, Neville Chamberlain was Prime Minister. In the movie he sits with the ruling Conservative Party on one side of the House of Commons as the leader of the minority (the Labor Party) Clement Attlee declares, “Owing to his years of inactivity and incompetence, we find him personally responsible, for leaving our nation ruinously unprepared to face the present Nazi peril.” The call is for Chamberlain to resign.
Churchill is not at the House of Commons. He knows that his name will be put forth for the role of prime minister. When we meet Churchill (Gary Oldman, unrecognizable under makeup) he is not the dashing young soldier of the Boer War or World War I. Churchill was 65 and well known for drinking too much, starting early in the day and, at his age, he requires a late afternoon nap. He’s also a rude bully to his new secretary, Elizabeth Layton (Lily James), but is reminded of his manners by his still beautiful wife Clementine (Kristin Scott Thomas).
The differences in governmental systems might startle some. Americans might be alarmed at how quickly one prime minister could be replaced by another. What chaos to depart the prime minister’s residence on such little notice while another must movie in. This is what changing horses mid-stream looks like, but is it wise?
There were some in the British government who thought that surrender and peace would work best for the United Kingdom. The feeling of the UK’s isolation echoes the isolation of Churchill–as part of his class (He had, the movie tells us, never taken the subway) and even within his class where he is thought to be drunken and unwise.
France falls in June of that year and the British army is decimated and trapped at Dunkirk. Churchill’s speech ignites patriotism in his fellow statesmen yet while widely reported, the speech was heard by few because recording and broadcast equipment were prohibited in the House of Commons in 1940.
In the end, while the movie “Dunkirk” is an emotional movie about the common man–citizen volunteers, shell-shocked soldiers, desperate allies and those who die despite helping others, “Darkest Hour” is about the elite class, dominated by men who whisper and and converse in airy rooms furnished with dark wood and ornate wallpaper and stylish chairs who are then forced to go to more spartan quarters when the war comes closer to home. “Darkest Hour” shows us Churchill taking on the burden of a war that it might lose while some would prefer a peaceful resolution with Hitler.
Yet “Darkest Hour” doesn’t give us psychological insight into Churchill. Although it notes that Churchill was well-known for what was considered excessive drinking, the movie doesn’t show alcohol’s effect on Churchill or even the reasons behind it. Was he an alcoholic? Was he, like others of his generation, tortured by memories of war experiences of the past? While his past war time experiences are mentioned, these only serve as passing references and not psychological inquiries into Churchill’s mind.
As Churchill, Gary Oldman, doesn’t give us the dash of the once daring and handsome young man. Oldman gives us an old Churchill, a grubby statesman, who was the man of the hour, the man for whom Great Britain would turn to during its darkest Oldman received a Golden Globe nomination for Best Performance by an Actor in a Motion Picture – Drama as well as a SAG and BFCA nominations.
For those who forget that the war was being fought in Europe before the US joined and just how desperate the situation was, “Darkest Hour” is an intelligent discussion of both class and the clash of nations and how one nation stood bravely defiant. Well, not quite one nation. One mustn’t forget that Great Britain similarly conquered peoples of India and parts of Africa and yet soldiers from those regions helped preserve the British way of life and those non-white troops were joined by troops from predominately white Commonwealth countries like Canada and Australia. So here “Darkest Hour” glosses over the eventual irony and the dependency of Great Britain on those of darker skin color in both Africa and Asia.
Viewing “Dunkirk” and “Darkest Hour” together makes a satisfying World War II package for the cinephile, especially for US citizens who might not be aware of this dramatic period of British or World War II history. The desperate call to the U.S. president may make the US seem like Great Britain and, indeed, all of Europe’s last hope, but such a sentiment neglects another army at the UK’s disposal: India and the 2.6 million troops it provided during World War II.