It’s 96 hours before the planned D-Day invasion of Normandy, France during WWII and British PM Winston Churchill (Brian Cox) is having a crisis of conscience. Plagued by the memories of all the corpses of fallen soldiers during the Gallipoli campaign in WWI, he’s just not sure he can send British men- boys, really- to their likely deaths. Other interested parties like Field Marshall Bernard Montgomery (Julian Wadham, seemingly doing David Niven) and American President Dwight Eisenhower (John Slattery) can’t understand Churchill’s dithering. Miranda Richardson plays Churchill’s long-suffering wife Clementine, whilst James Purefoy plays the stuttering King George VI (who of course had his own film, and played by Colin Firth in “The King’s Speech”).
I haven’t seen the “The Darkest Hour” yet, but based on the trailer I think Gary Oldman seems entirely miscast and unconvincing as Winston Churchill (his Oscar win suggests I may be wrong), and one thing I can say about this 2017 biopic of the larger-than-life former British PM is that Brian Cox is not miscast and not particularly unconvincing. Sure, he sounds a lot more like Brian Cox than Churchill, but he does his damn best to give a good, or certainly at least lively performance here. Unfortunately, that’s just about the only remotely positive thing I have to say about this woefully unconvincing, shockingly inaccurate film from Aussie director Jonathan Teplitzky (the enjoyable bogan crime-comedy “Gettin’ Square”, the interesting WWII film “The Railway Man”) and screenwriter Alex von Tunzelmann.
What’s really bizarre here is that von Tunzelmann, apparently an historian (not of WWII, however), has sought to completely distort historical record that anyone can find out about quite readily, and has passed it off as fact. Teplitzky and von Tunzelmann have got Churchill dithering in 1944 on the Allied invasion of France and plagued by his past decisions during WWI’s Gallipoli campaign. It’s true that Churchill did indeed oppose the planned invasion…in 1942 and 1943. By D-Day in 1944 however, he was heavily involved in the operation. And of course he would be, it just isn’t convincing to suggest otherwise. He had also long been cleared of any wrongdoing during WWI and had from what I’ve read moved past the guilt there. The filmmakers have screwed around with historical record, condensing/rearranging things simply to create some urgency and drama and get everything over and done with in under two hours. If you need to fabricate/condense something so much, I’d suggest looking to another point in Churchill’s life instead that might suit your needs without the need to fabricate or condense the story. By changing the dates it serves to misrepresent the title character to no benefit of the film, and it makes him seem mentally or at least emotionally unstable. Yes, he may have suffered from depression, but this film’s Churchill seems positively bi-polar, possibly even having acid flashbacks. What a dreadful thing for a supposed historian to have concocted, and it tars the entire film. It may seem silly, but think about it. It’s what the thrust of the film is about, and it goes against known fact and paints a character in a way that he’s not terribly recognisable. It sinks the film entirely. You might as well regard it as a work of ‘fan fiction’.
Meanwhile, if Churchill and King George VI (James Purefoy) actually agreed to lead the troops themselves at one point, I don’t believe it as presented in this film, and Purefoy is no Colin Firth. Purefoy certainly tries to nail that stutter though, and that’s the problem. You see the work going into it, not the character itself. It’s a shame because his big speech (no pun intended), whether I believed the scenario around it or not, is one of the more interesting in a not very interesting film. John Slattery also doesn’t convince as American President Dwight D. Eisenhower, and his every scene with Churchill is eye-rolling. As for poor Miranda Richardson (giving one of the better performances in the film), hers is a boring and thankless task. Almost her entire role seems to consist of entering a room to give her husband a verbal undressing over something. It’s a bit stagey (the whole film is) and gets old fast.
Brian Cox deserves credit for narrowly avoiding becoming a scenery-chewing irritant in a film that isn’t deserving of his efforts. He’ll do, he’s certainly not the one to lay fault at here. A story that doesn’t line up with historical facts widely known, most certainly will not do because it throws the portrait too far out of whack. Stagey, unconvincing, and it completely skews the title character in a rather distasteful way actually. What the hell happened here? Why couldn’t they just set the film pre-1944? It’d solve at least one of the big problems with it. A disaster, and one of the year’s worst and most dishonest films. Something tells me “The Darkest Hour”, even with a miscast Gary Oldman, can’t be anywhere near this bad.