Joe Wright’s biopic of Winston Churchill comes along at a sticky moment for this troubled isle as we slip slowly but assuredly towards the uncertain shadows of our post-Brexit landscape. Our national identity, such as it is, feels thrillingly buoyant for some, and never more soulless or hollow for many others. So, how might our cinema take the measure of such divisions and patch together a suitable image of one of its icons? Despite the bluster of the speechifying, which takes the central role in Darkest Hour, and the melodramatic super-size text, Wright’s film ends up feeling a little pensive, a little unsure. It’s a decent enough stab at a sensitive and nuanced portrayal of forties Britain; reigning in gaudiness in favour of the muted colours of a nation just about getting by, not a single Union Jack to be glimpsed. It is all in service, of course, to the eponymous darkness, but it also feels tentative. Where this could have been a film about our deep bond with our European cousins, it falls into shadows of uncertainty instead and keeps us, for the most part, at arm’s length of the realms at the front-line.
The aesthetic does allow for some neat cinematic moments. Gary Oldman’s Churchill is often boxed in by deep blackness, or lost in heavy gloom, as the pressure on him and his nation mounts and mounts. Such a visual strategy does well to engender sympathies for a man who has found himself at the pinnacle of power via various Machiavellian manoeuvres to be faced, on the instant, with world-changing decisions. This is, however, a film that adores its hero a little much. Churchill was many things; a leader, a good speech writer, an icon, but also a genocidal warmonger with a penchant for the extremes of violence. There is no attempt to tackle his various indiscretions which led, for example to the massacre of Greek protestors, or the starvation of four million Bengali Indians. Instead, we are given a bumbling, Falstaffian, cantankerous buffoon, a proto-Boris, who sometimes has a bit of a bad temper and will cheekily bend a few rules.
But of course, we were never to expect Darkest Hour to cover all the darkness, and the bit it selectively opts for is well handled for the most part. The story is well-paced, the narrative grips, and it manages to get reasonably stuck into the depths of the political wrangling of the time. But even these careful plottings result in bitter aftertaste. Our maverick Winston is pitched against the feeble machinations of his predecessor Neville Chamberlain (Ronald Pickup) and Lord Halifax (Stephen Dillane), a pair of pale and shady figures who attempt to blackmail Churchill into entering into peace negotiations rather than fighting on. And while the context of attempting peace talks with Nazis still feels abhorrent, the potential effect here is the alignment of peace talks with cowardice and villainy, while the bloodthirst of war becomes heroic and desirable. By the final half hour, the scenes of old white men erupting into orgasmic cheers at the prospect of continued warmongering start to feel quite wearing and depressing, rather than rousing.
It is an oppressively masculine film, made worse by the half-hearted attempts to find narrative places for the women. Kristen Scott-Thomas embodies the stern, self-assured wife archetype who will always be on hand to straighten a tie and deliver a pithy pep-talk, but won’t be required for much else. We also have Lily James in place as Churchill’s secretary Elizabeth Layton, a character who becomes the surrogate for the audience, expressing the awe and anxiety we are supposed to feel in the presence of the great man. And while it is laudable that the secretary gets such significant screen-time, her near-muteness and her jumpy nerves render her as little more than background to her own story.
Instead, it is wholly Churchill’s story and Gary Oldman delivers a fine performance in the central role, taking some decent steps beyond mere mimicry. He handles the balance of bumble and brash very well, and discovers the gentle, tender side of this mythic version of Churchill, giving it the gravitas it needed to be convincing. Oldman has always been a patient and smart actor, never prone to overplaying his roles, and he retains that class for Churchill. The final ‘beaches’ speech is delivered with accuracy rather than melodrama, and feels all the more authentic for it.
The same can’t be said for Darkest Hour’s most ambitious scene, however. In a narrative liberty too far, Churchill becomes the deus to his own machina by miraculously appearing on the London Underground to talk to the public – the real people of this nation. Those people, of course, are an archetypal cross-section of what we thought we were, complete with the token black man, and the child Messiah with doting mother. Winston runs his conflicting thoughts by the gathered worshippers and receives a desperate cry for Nazi blood in response. Thus, his edicts are etched and can be proclaimed.
It is a fantasy, it never happened. Perhaps for some the film can be forgiven for indulgence to give us a much-needed image of unity and togetherness. But the precedent it sets is dangerous. It grants Churchill an authenticity he may not have had. It constructs a myth of a nation who must always desire a fight over the possibility of peace. It plays fast and loose with history in order to seek a national identity. In darkness, underground, in a fantasy, a certain ugliness masquerades as hope.
by David Hartley