This is my review of the film Darkest Hour
In this film which has attracted attention for Gary Oldman’s remarkable transformation into what many regard as an uncanny replica of Churchill, the focus is on a fraught period in May 1940 when European states were falling like ninepins as German troops scythed through them, Italy was collaborating with the Third Reich, France about to capitulate and the entire British land army trapped at Calais and Dunkerque. In what seems a hopeless situation, and anxious not to repeat the carnage of young men in World War 1, a wily Lord Halifax manoeuvres to force Churchill to agree to peace negotiations with Hitler, with Mussolini acting as intermediary. We know that ultimately, Churchill will not give in, so the interest lies in seeing how, with the entire War Cabinet and the King against him, scant help from an America sworn to neutrality, and such a dire military position in mainland Europe, he can possibly survive as Prime Minister, if he persists In taking what looks like an increasingly forlorn stand.
No punches have been pulled over the portrayal of Churchill as, frankly, a physical mess – a large cigar perpetually in one hand and tumbler of whisky in the other, or close by, with a bottle in view for a top up. He has clearly made major mistakes in the past, is at the best of times irascible, capricious, inconsiderate, over-emotional yet inexplicably adored by his long-suffering wife played by Kristen Scott-Thomas – who has perhaps worn better through being less self-indulgent.
“How does he manage to drink so much during the day,” enquires a disapproving King George V1 – “Practice” comes the quick-fire reply. Yet as depression due to lack of sleep born of anxiety combines with his perpetual state of being not quite – or not at all sober – to take their toll, he appears increasingly shambling and pathetic.
I will have to read another biography or two to establish whether this is a just portrait of “the great man”, but the film almost manages to redress the balance with the flashes of self-deprecating humour, charm, and gift for delivering a thundering speech to mobilise his audience when required, enabling us to glimpse what his appeal must have been. Nowadays, a less deferential public than the one we see during his improbable trip on the Underground might be much more critical, except that our weakness for mavericks and celebrities can still sway us to rally to a challenging course of action on emotional grounds.
It is in many ways a typical wartime period drama, with London crowds in 1940s style but unduly well-fitting and brand new clothing with sleek hairstyles. Even the London dustmen look too clean and tidy. Most of the interiors, a House of Commons chamber very different from Westminster, rooms in Buckingham Palace and Churchill’s residence seem very dark – perhaps to indicate the black-out. Yet there is some excellent camerawork, sweeping down from the London rooftops into grand inner courtyards of government buildings.
Our continual harking back to past glories and acts of bravado sometimes seems like a kind of ostrich-like escapism from our current problems – a kind of self-delusion, of which Churchill himself was of course accused when he refused to negotiate with Hitler. With the wisdom of hindsight we can see that Churchill was right, although his moral justification only won through with the military support of the Soviet Union and America. The film glosses over the rejection of Churchill once the war was over. No longer needed to boost morale and stubbornly battle on, his approach seemed not only outworn, but a barrier to the new drive for social change which the war had released.
This is a well-made film without being great which has inspired me to start reading the biography of Churchill by Roy Jenkins which has lain on a shelf for years.