By Preston Wilder
There’s one fascinating aspect to Darkest Hour. You wouldn’t think there’d be anything fascinating left to say about Winston Churchill during WWII, but there is one thing: not so much the flawed, larger-than-life individual with the bulldog spirit (we’ve been there before), but the fact that a man who became a champion of the people essentially lived in a bubble, having never used public transport or had any contact with the people. (“I believe I can boil an egg,” muses Mr Churchill, “but only because I’ve seen it done.”) Alas, the film totally ruins this aspect in a spectacularly ill-judged final 30 minutes – suggesting, if nothing else, that what I find fascinating isn’t what Darkest Hour finds fascinating.
What does director Joe Wright find fascinating? Winning Oscars, for a start. Wright has form, having done the flashy, Dunkirk-in-a-single-shot show-stopper in Atonement a decade ago – and he comes up with some similarly elaborate shots here, like a CGI composite where the camera follows an officer down a long corridor full of wounded men, then soars up into the sky where Our Boys are fighting the Luftwaffe. It’s unclear if the film is in the running for a Best Director Oscar – but Best Actor is in the bag, Gary Oldman as Churchill giving exactly the kind of performance that wins Oscars; not only does he play a real person, but he labours under several kilos of prosthetic makeup. It took more than three hours every day for the makeup to be applied, we’re told breathlessly, as if sitting in a chair for three hours every day were synonymous with good acting.
That said, Oldman is legitimately excellent as the V-sign-flashing PM, the actor’s intelligent intensity peeking out from behind the makeup. Churchill is indeed an intense fellow, his bon-viveur hedonism and impulsiveness contrasted with the old and bloodless Neville Chamberlain; Darkest Hour is another in the recent spate of British films (see also The Imitation Game and to some extent The Theory of Everything, by the same writer) about troubled genius, a case of emotional mavericks out of place in the repressed, class-ridden Britain of the bad old days. “You scare people,” Winston is told at one point. “My emotions are unbridled,” he admits – unlike his main rival the Earl of Halifax, a toff who stands for cold realism and deplores Churchill’s “romantic fantasy of fighting to the end”.
The film’s emotions are also unbridled, opening with an overhead shot of raging MPs onto which the title is blasted in a suitably gigantic font. Wright would no doubt justify the histrionic tone due to the wartime setting (the film takes place around the time of Dunkirk, Britain’s ‘darkest hour’) – but not only did Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk come out a few months ago, showing that the subject can be handled in more muted, poetic fashion, but the situation is also trickier than it looks. Simply put, Halifax has a point: Churchill is a fantasist, and indeed a warmonger. Peace negotiations with Hitler are a real option, and would prevent the deaths of thousands of soldiers. Churchill is “refusing to grasp the realities” – which brings us back to the fascinating aspect of Darkest Hour, a man living in his own private bubble, drinking scotch and smoking cigars in a fug of obstinate patriotism.
This, of course, is the problem with History; the path not taken is impossible to gauge. The film makes peace talks seem like an evil machination by Churchill’s opponents – but what if Britain had gone the way of France? Was it any less irresponsible for a vain, stubborn man to project his own unbridled emotions – and personal hatred of Hitler – onto the whole country? Darkest Hour doesn’t really delve into all this, offering trailer-ready quips (Winston in the loo, fielding a call from the Lord Privy Seal: “Tell the Lord Privy Seal that I am sealed in the privy!”) and a Bluffer’s Guide to politics: Churchill’s famous comment on Clement Attlee – “a sheep in sheep’s clothing” – gets a quick mention even though Attlee is irrelevant to the plot, then a conversation about King George VI talks of “his brother’s marriage to Wallis Simpson”, even though the characters in the movie (unlike the modern audience) obviously wouldn’t need it spelled out like that.
The film is fairly gripping nonetheless, a behind-the-scenes look at a nation in the grip of its greatest crisis – at least till the final half-hour, when it takes a sharp turn into populism and never recovers. “Go to the people,” says King George (which seems unlikely in itself) – and Churchill does, in a scene so phony it barely even merits description. I can see why they had to include it, though, just to show the PM was right, otherwise we might’ve ended up with a Churchill who wasn’t actually a champion of the people, just a bull-headed orator in love with the sound of his own voice – and that would’ve been inappropriate, and Oscar-unfriendly. But fascinating.
DIRECTED BY Joe Wright
STARRING Gary Oldman, Lily James, Kristin Scott Thomas
UK 2017 125 mins