The Darkest Hour

Dzenana Vucic | 30/12/2017

Much ado is made about Winston Churchill. He’s the sort of interesting historical figure that people find easy to like – imperfect but (apparently) effective and clearly a favourite among script writers. 

Given the plethora of historical coverage of Operation Dynamo, Winston Churchill and World War II, and the fact that 2017 has already seen three movies covering various aspects of the same (the others being Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk, Jonathan Teplitsky’s Churchill and Lone Scherfig’s Their Finest, one has to wonder what lacuna Darkest Hour was attempting to fill and, more saliently, why? After all, what else do we need to know about the particular five weeks of Churchill’s life covered in this latest drama? As Darkest Hour proves, not much.

Churchill is couched in the same kind of public regard as all Great Men – unquestioning praise and amused acceptance of his faults. But he was also a short-tempered, drunken, imperialist, and these faults are reduced in history, and in cinema, to minor eccentricities in light of the overarching fact that Winston Churchill Did Not Surrender To, Or Negotiate With, The Nazis. Darkest Hour is the biopic retelling of this fact after the 1940 invasion of Belgium and France, when British troops had been pushed onto a beach in the French port of Dunkirk and defeat seemed imminent.

The movie opens with the political machinations involved in Neville Chamberlain (played by Ronald Pickup) stepping down as British prime minister and a replacement found. Lord Halifax (Stephen Dillane) turns the position down, leaving only Winston Churchill – the one member of the Conservative Party acceptable to the opposition – to pick up the slack. Chamberlain and Halifax were both keen to pursue peace negotiations with the Nazis, given the dire straits the English found themselves in, but Churchill would have none of that. The man himself is played with gusto by Gary Oldman, barely recognisable under prosthetic jowls and a padded body suit. Oldman fills the role expansively, playing a Churchill very similar to, though not an exact copy of, the one we see in old footage and hear in his famous orations. He is blustery, jocular, drunk and depressed in turns, Oldman makes the most of each mood, infusing Churchill’s peculiarities with a pouty-lipped gravitas.

The first we see of Churchill, he is in bed, smoking a cigar and eating a heart-attack inducing breakfast which includes both whiskey and champagne (no question of sparkling here – it’s the real stuff). His new secretary, doe-eyed English rose Miss Elizabeth Layton (Lily James) is at her typewriter, ready to work and while Lily James did a decent job with what she had, there’s no denying that her inclusion in the script was solely to offer viewers something other than stodgy old white men to look at and for minor emotional appeal. There will come a day that pretty secretaries in soft lighting don’t need to be included in scripts just coz, but today is not that day.

From there, the film progresses into a close study of the statecraft and political machinations at work leading up to the Dunkirk evacuation. Anthony McCarten has produced a script that plays due service to the importance of rhetoric and language in political engagement and public opinion and Joe Wright (Pride & Prejudice, Atonement, Anna Karenina) directs it to life while somehow managing to avoid the whole thing slipping into sheer tedium. Cinematographer Bruno Delbonnel plays no small part in this, giving viewers sweeping shots of busy London life, juxtaposed with the more claustrophobic rabbit-warren under Westminster, and a number of aerial views.

Being a character study, rather than an action flick, it’s important what character the film actually portrays and to that extent, Darkest Hour relies heavily on an idealised English one. The ministers are all restrained, high-browed gentlemen, King George (Ben Mendelsohn) is aloof, weary, worried with a mildness that only the English could pull off and Clementine Churchill (Kristin Scott Thomas ) is brisk, ironic and full of pep(talks). It’s Englishness in the most stereotypical way.

And then of course, Churchill, himself: pompous, pandered, sardonic but an all-round good guy somehow. His alcoholism, brutishness and bursts of anger are fetishised, and his win-at-all-costs attitude is lionised, despite that at no point does not movie really unpack why victory is so important – it’s painted as though the war is being fought solely for the British, not for Europe, and certainly not for Hitler’s victims in the Concentration Camps. I don’t remember anyone even mentioning Jews in all that talk about needing to win, which is perhaps the way it was – but then really, if you’re going to engage in creative myth-building about the former prime minister, maybe throw in some concern for the genocide being committed across the channel.

Conclusion

The picture painted is not especially nuanced – sure we see some of Churchill’s angry outbursts, his frustration, his doubt. But he is still heavily glorified, his short-comings turned into quirks rather than explored in any meaningful way. It’s a heavily editorialised account, and despite lush sets showing off all kinds of noble extravagance and a few funny moments, a film made to idolise a man already heavily idolised will still beg the question, why?