Darkest Hour attempts to turn the early weeks of Winston Churchill’s premiership into a political thriller as the unorthodox and unwanted Prime Minister (played by Gary Oldman) faced the Nazi advances across western Europe and feared that Britain would be invaded before long.
Over the new permiere’s shoulder stood the peace-talks-promoting Viscount Halifax (Stephen Dillane) and the former PM (and still Tory party leader) Neville Chamberlain (Ronald Pickup), both of whom were included in Churchill’s War Cabinet (on the basis of keeping enemies close).
It’s a film about external bravado and internal conflict: the war in Europe, the strife at Westminster and within the Cabinet War Rooms, the new Prime Minister’s relationship with the monarch, Churchill’s legacy of military failure, his feeling of self-doubt and weakness … bolstered only by his long-suffering wife Clemmie (Kristin Scott Thomas) and his shorter-suffering-but-loyal secretary Elizabeth Layton (Lily James).
“The last ten years I was the only one to tell them the truth, until tonight”
There’s a poignancy in 2018 – a year in which the phrase ‘fake news’ is still not far from some politicians’ lips – watching the scenes showing Churchill misleading the public about the extent of the Nazi advance through France in an effort to stoke up their hope and resilience.
This is not the only film released during the last 12 months that features Winston Churchill during World War Two. In last June’s Churchill he was depicted with depression in the four day run up to D-Day, whereas in in Darkest Hour, director Joe Wright shows off the desperation and despondency that overshadowed his early days at Number 10. (Churchill’s words were included in last summer’s Dunkirk, but the politician was not included on-screen lest the film would get “bogged down in the politics of the situation”.)
A braver edit would have excluded the scenes of war from Darkest Days and kept the focus on politics. A shorter edit would have concentrated on story rather than biography. Instead, the film wobbles along for the first twenty minutes, picking up pace slowly, all the while underserved by Anthony McCarten’s script which is packed to the gills with factual detail and over-explained commentary.
As director of photography, Bruno Delbonnel has given Darkest Hour a distinctive dark and sepia tone lit by rays of natural light that conveniently flood each new location. Often low angle shots look up at characters. Trance-like slow motion streetscapes accompanied only by piano music are observed out the window of Churchill’s car (twice). Amongst this filmic flair there are moments when successive shots jar, for example when Churchill looks out of an airplane window and the film cuts to an overhead shot only a few metres off the ground.
Towards the end of the film, an invented scene thrusts Churchill amongst his subjects and allows him to show off his charm and rapport, and to discover that his fight-to-the-end mentality is echoed by the population at large, even if not by all of his war-fearing colleagues. Despite being dramatically useful, this emotional scene of nationalism is a clunky device and unrealistically long, ruining the desire effect.
“He’s an actor who loves the sound of his own voice”
The best moments are based around Churchill’s famed rhetoric, watching him pace up and down, dictating passages and corrections to his secretary. The preparation is skilfully woven in with their delivery in the House of Commons and radio broadcasts. (The real life Elizabeth Layton wrote a book about her time working during the war: Winston Churchill by his Personal Secretary: Recollections of The Great Man by A Woman Who Worked for Him.)
While the heavily made up Oldman is heavily made-up and hiding behind prosthetics: he’s no Churchill lookalike, but his facial expressions are watchable and he captures the conflicted leader. Scott Thomas is as brimming with love and loyalty as she is with glamour. James manages well her character’s journey from demure typist to confidant aide. Chamberlain’s twin battle with dogma and cancer is delicately portrayed by Pickup whose health visibly fails during the film, while Dillane keeps a stiff upper lip as the well-connected member of the House of Lords keen to enter negotiations.
Despite its flaws and its quirks, if you stick with Darkest Hour for all 125 minutes it rewards you with an intelligent critique of Winston Churchill’s first month in power that is careful not to relegate those supporting appeasement to easy-dismissed one dimensional characters. The moral and military tussle around deliberate sacrifice and the sanctity of independence was largely missing from my childhood education about WW2, and the conflicted Churchill was nowhere to be found in the two primary school projects I completed about the famous character.
“You cannot reason with a tiger when your head is in its mouth”
Darkest Hour’s themes and dialogue resonates at a time when the UK is retreating from Europe and a US President seems to feel that you can’t negotiate with a leader like Kim Jong-un.
“He mobilised the English language and sent it into battle”
In the future if anyone wants a six hour DVD marathon, Darkest Hour followed by Dunkirk and then Churchill would be a good order to watch the three recent films. In the meantime you can catch Darkest Hour in Movie House cinemas (and elsewhere) from Friday 12 January.