Winston Churchill is curiously absent from the opening fifteen minutes of this new Joe Wright-directed study of the tumultuous first few weeks of his Premiership. Instead, we hear political colleagues murmur darkly about the prospect of him becoming Prime Minister in the wake of Neville Chamberlain’s resignation.
It’s a clever move; with Churchill, it seems fitting that the myth precedes the man. When we finally meet Gary Oldman’s incarnation of the man himself, it’s in one of the great introductory shots of recent cinema; a match is lit, and the screen is eclipsed by a red flare, before clearing to reveal Churchill, reposed in bed, drinking whisky and smoking a breakfast cigar.
We’re guided through much of the action by his private secretary Elizabeth Layton (Lily James), who in real life was born in South Africa and raised in Canada, but here is a worthy English proletarian, presumably to capture the full span of British society.
We also get some classic Churchillian bantz in his conversations with his wife Clemmie (Kristin Scott-Thomas), though their dialogue sounds weirdly off – perhaps because it’s so familiar. George IV (Ben Mendelsohn), Churchill’s initially chilly monarch, fares better, with one of the film’s highlights being an unexpectedly tender conversation between the two.
Wright, for his part, directs with a keen artist’s eye. His camera adores Churchill, and he constructs some wonderful, painterly shots of his strangely wrinkle-free and porcine face, which an assiduous team of make-up artists have impressively recreated on Oldman’s normally angular features.
The public adores him, too, as we’re ceaselessly reminded. Who doesn’t love him? Well, his party aren’t especially keen. The film’s villains are Chamberlain and Lord Halifax (Ronald Pickup and Stephen Dillane, respectively), a pair of sentient stately homes whose strategy of appeasement led to Churchill being installed as Prime Minister. They inveigh against Churchill’s inflexibility at every turn, and plot to have him removed via a vote of no confidence.
Here, Darkest Hour issues an interesting historical corrective. We tend to think of Churchill and the politics he presided over in dichotomous terms; we were appeasers, and then we became Lions, determined to fight them on the beaches and the landing grounds and to never ever surrender.
Wright emphasizes the fact that when Churchill entered office a peace deal was still a live prospect. He was faced with an invidious choice between committing to a long and brutal war with little prospect of success, and brokering an unequal and likely impermanent peace with Nazi Germany.
The specifics of what happened are all familiar, of course, and as a historical document there’s little that’s new or revisionary here. Where Oldman excels is in incarnating this dilemma. If he wins the Oscar he’s tipped for, it will be the film’s middle section, when Churchill is close to yielding to the incessant pressure to negotiate, that will make his victory deserved. Seized by despair, he becomes a mumbling mess, erratic and unsure of himself. We see Churchill rapid-shift between all of his personality-types – depressive; theatrical; courageous.
But while Oldman makes full dramatic use of the mythos surrounding Churchill, Wright proves is unwilling to interrogate it. Few national heroes so beloved are quite so controversial, yet here there’s not a hint of heresy. The film’s narrative structure is ultimately obsequious and even a little half-arsed; we see Churchill falter, wracked by doubt and advised by cowards; but then he acts – he prevails. And we, the British people, all flat caps and stiff upper lips, prevail with him.
This theme is made most explicit in an entirely fictitious scene in which Churchill asks various common folk on the London Underground what they make of another war. Everyone, including an immigrant from the Empire Churchill fought the war to defend, is undone by his patrician charm, and every opinion he solicits is the same; beat the buggers back.
His nerve steeled, Churchill goes to Parliament, whereupon he makes a speech (citing each passenger by name) that rouses his apprehensive cabinet to his side. This isn’t only ahistorical – Churchill led public opinion, rather than followed it, and a generation brutalised by WWI probably weren’t so eager for another war – it’s also slightly unsettling.
Darkest Hour trades in a sentimental and easily marketable notion of Britishness, one that muffles dissent and comforts a guilty conscience. We would do well, given present circumstances, to instead discover a healthy scepticism about our past.