My Problem with Darkest Hour Involves a Bathtub, a Man, and His Penis


Here is my first (but not main) problem with Darkest Hour, a film about Winston Churchill pulling Great Britain from the brink of disaster in the early days of World War II: It’s too long. Everything the film has to say could have been easily and neatly packed into 80 brisk minutes.

We would see the unstoppable Nazis and Great Britain’s defeat at Dunkirk; we would hear from those who want to appease Hitler and from those who do not. Churchill, in the latter group, would have his many enemies in the government and parliament, but he would not be defeated. He would become the prime minister, and the rest would be history. Movie over.

Instead, we hear lots and lots of Churchill. He does not stop talking, dictating, giving speeches. Indeed, I can’t recall one moment in the whole movie when Churchill, played by Gary Oldman, is quiet and trying to think something through. He has no thoughts. He only has a mouth that’s supported by a plump but obviously fake second chin. (Oldman is much too thin for the portly, whisky-swilling, cigar-puffing prime minister.)

My main problem with Darkest Hour, however, is a disturbing scene that happens somewhere in the middle of the movie and involves Churchill and his young and conventionally attractive secretary, Elizabeth Layton (Lily James). What happens is this: Churchill is taking a bath and dictating something of great importance to his secretary through a closed door. Layton is in the hall, where she has set up a little table and a clunky typewriter. Then Churchill suddenly announces that he is leaving the bathroom “in a state of nature” and that his young secretary should get ready for it. It’s going to happen. He is a busy man. He doesn’t have time to get dressed.

And out he walks as naked as Adam. The secretary lowers her eyes and keeps typing. This scene is supposed to be cutesy, but in our #MeToo moment, it looks exactly like what it is: sexual harassment. This is not a laughing matter. An old and powerful man is forcing the sight of his penis on a powerless young woman without her consent.

Now, I saw Darkest Hour at the Orcas Island Film Festival in early October, many weeks before the revelations about Harvey Weinstein’s long history of sexual assault initiated a massive cultural shift in the United States. Before Weinstein, that scene would have sadly passed with almost no notice. But after the downfall of Weinstein and Charlie Rose and Louis C.K. and many others, it is the most pronounced thing in the film. Audiences will not see it as the light moment that its filmmaker seems to have intended. It also dates Darkest Hour. It was clearly made before this watershed moment in workplace rights for women, given the way it’s handled. The movie is already history before it’s released.