ACCORDING TO THIS telling, Winston Churchill not only stood down the massed ranks of aristocrats and his own Tory party (ready to make a deal with Hitler at the drop of a hat), but he found his resolve thanks to a chance (and entirely fabricated) encounter with ‘ordinary’ people… who were prepared to fight to the last person. Darkest Hour condenses the drama of the war to a few critical weeks of crisis when Britain was facing a massacre at Dunkirk, had failed to secure the involvement of the Americans and the real threat of a German invasion was imminent.
It’s a superb piece of storytelling complemented by an outstanding piece of acting, all gloriously shot by cinematographer Bruno Delbonnel (Inside Llewyn Davis). It leaves you cheering at the end and would be typical nationalistic jingoism if it weren’t essentially so very true.
The Churchill we’re introduced to is an insufferable alcoholic. He’s abusive, short tempered, eccentric and beholden to no party ideology and to no one, other than his stoic wife (Kristin Scott Thomas). But he also has a clear sightedness and an understanding of the arc of history that, perhaps justified his boorish self-belief…his refusal to yield to anyone.
Director Joe Wright (Atonement) and his writer Anthony McCarten (The Theory of Everything) seem to suggest that his (internal) enemies could see no further than Churchill the curmudgeonly, eccentric drunk. It was the other side of Churchill that won the war: Churchill the inspiring self-confident leader; the one who found the resolve and the conviction to rise to the occasion and face down the onrushing panzer divisions of the Third Reich.
Churchill not only found the resolve he needed, but the language of persuasion. As one of his thwarted opponents mutters after the “fight them on the beaches” speech, “Churchill has found his words and has sent them in to battle”. Wright threads the theme of language and persuasion throughout the narrative. Churchill’s eloquence and his way with words are, it is suggested, central to his thought process. He wrestles and tugs at language, with his stenographer, Elizabeth (Lily James), gamely following along, until he arrives at both verbal and intellectual precision.
The brilliance of Gary Oldman’s portrayal is that he exaggerates Churchill’s flat delivery just enough to make it dramatically compelling, even as he flits between his character’s two faces illustrating how the one energized the other. For it was in his drunk abrasiveness that Churchill seemed to underscore the resolve to win over his doubters and fill his people with the courage they would need to outlast the blitz.
The problem I had with the movie though is that it all felt a bit smug.
This was plucky Blighty ready to fight them on the beaches and in the fields; led by, let’s face it: God. In one farcical scene on the ‘tube’ where the ORDINARY PERSON is seen in direct contrast with Churchill’s feckless War Cabinet (the one resolved to die fighting against Nazism; the other ready to surrender), there’s even a Shakespeare-quoting Black man. (In real life, such an occurrence would probably have given Churchill, who had zero contact with the ordinary person let alone those of a darker hue, a heart attack).
Churchill and the war he led was modern Britain’s equivalent to Henry V. Anthony McCarten is a marvellous writer; but in a story deserving the complexity of Shakespeare, Darkest Hour offers us Churchill for Dummies instead.
Sadly, this, like Dunkirk, continues to be part of an eco-system of pop culture that feeds Britain’s inflated sense of identity: as the courageous self-subsistent island kingdom, who conquered the world (Who needs Europe?). This glorious version of self may have the ring of Shakespeare’s “sceptered isle” but it’s a sad fantasy that continues to nourish the country’s false sense of its post Brexit go-it-alone muscle.
And yet on the other hand, what Darkest Hour so startlingly reminds us of, is just how far the country has declined in this our present darkest hour: from Churchill’s (and Shakespeare’s) well wrought and eloquent exhortations to “stiffen the sinews, summon up the blood” to Theresa May’s version of national motivation: “Brexit means Brexit”
DARKEST HOUR: Dir: Joe Wright. With: Gary Oldman, Lily James (Baby Driver), Kristin Scott Thomas, Ben Mendelsohn (Rogue One). Writer: Anthony McCarten. Director of Photography: Bruno Delbonnel (Big Eyes, Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince). Production Designer: Sarah Greenwood (Beauty and the Beast. Our Kind of Traitor)