Of all the major historical figures of the 20th century, the British have arguably mythologised Sir Winston Churchill above all others. He was the epitome of fighting, British ‘bulldog’ spirit – a powerful, legendary orator whose speeches have cascaded across the last seventy years of history as a nationalist rally against the forces of darkness. Darkest Hour, therefore, marries the mythological Churchill alongside the romantic fantasy of a righteous war.
Joe Wright’s picture focuses on a very tight three-four week period in the early summer of 1940, in which milquetoast appeasement-favouring Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain is ousted on the back of the German push into Western Europe and up steps Churchill to fill the void, and take on what is considered by most of Westminster an impossible task. Darkest Hour’s entire raison d’etre is to take Churchill from the bullish, anti-fascist old war horse without the backing of his government and King—if not the people—to the proud war *hero* giving the “we will fight them on the beaches” speech in Parliament, his single most remembered delivery in a career filled with verbose oracy. It’s designed as an inspiring call to arms which makes a man, essentially, into a legend.
What this does, almost immediately, is characterise Darkest Hour as much less a historical movie and far more of a dazzling piece of spin driven by an admittedly magnificent central performance by Gary Oldman, who loses himself in his unrecognisable makeup as Churchill, only occasionally letting his native cockney betray the actor within. Wright uses historical truth to construct a fantasy which, while less theatrical than Anna Karenina or less emotional than Atonement, feels no less in keeping with his cinematic style. Wright’s pictures are often confections of sound, colour and lighting, with elegant production design, and Darkest Hour is no exception. You may just be surprised at the tone it takes, not to mention its relationship with personal and historical truth.
Certain myths in the public consciousness are dealt with by Darkest Hour in the symbolic, mythologising of Churchill which takes place across Wright’s picture. For a start, nobody wanted Winston after Chamberlain was ousted – he was a noisy, belligerent rank outsider who King George disliked for supporting his brother’s scandalous abdication, and who had never quite been forgiven for his tactics at Gallipoli during the Great War. Churchill didn’t walk into a rousing position, backed by King and country, on which he began leading the British people to victory; Anthony McCarten’s script teases out the personal and political struggles Churchill faces in rallying Parliament to get behind his determination to fight back against Hitler.
People often equally forget the power of the appeasement movement in Britain during the early days of World War Two, which like Churchill has been heavily mythologised in the decades since, the more distant we have grown from the realities of the time. Appeasement wasn’t just the province of the open fascist parties in the UK during the 1930’s, led by men like Sir Oswald Mosley (who gets a name check here), or indeed Chamberlain himself. The principal antagonist in Darkest Hour is Stephen Dillane’s mercurial Viscount Halifax, a spider Machiavelli of his day, courting Kings and politicians in his attempts to encourage an appeasement settlement with the Nazis. In the middle of 1940, before the rallying symbolic ‘victory’ of Dunkirk, many in the higher echelons of power truly believed Britain could be invaded and conquered by the German military machine.
This is a reality most British people wouldn’t like to imagine or consider with the distance of time and history. Wright’s film goes to great pains to paint ‘the people’ as indomitable, ready to fight to the last – whether during Churchill’s Tube ride where he talks to civilians (which almost certainly didn’t happen) or his dynamic with meek secretary Miss Layton (a spirited Lily James), who grounds Winston often in the truth of the ‘common person’. Darkest Hour does make you question, however, quite whether the fighting spirit Churchill imbued within Parliament and within the country came from the people and raised him, or rather the reverse. Wright plays with the veracity of Churchill’s own truth; indeed the climax sees him visibly play the people and the cabinet off each other to advance his agenda.
Simplistically, you could suggest some of Churchill’s words are reaching down the ages in McCarten’s script to our current day political landscape, words in which he discusses never learning from history in how to deal with tyrants. “One doesn’t pet the tiger when it has your head in its jaws” could apply to a certain current American President, in an albeit different context, but it almost feels too easy to suggest Darkest Hour is making a direct, modern-day commentary. It doesn’t feel grounded in political truth enough to warrant such comparison and that’s where, as a piece, it sometimes appears confused in its intentions. Every time it aspires to reach some level of historical fact, the undercurrent of hagiographical fantasy undercuts the purpose.
The film works hard to characterise the men around Churchill, specifically, as quite venal and flawed. Halifax turns down becoming PM for unspecified reasons but it becomes pretty clear he didn’t want the burden and responsibility of trying to rouse a nation, Chamberlain is depicted as ailing and incapable, and most interestingly King George seems keen to throw in with Halifax and protect his own life and family than fight for Britain, at least at first. George and Halifax both suffer from a level of speech impediment too, placing them almost as the opposite of Churchill’s ability to command the English language and ‘weaponise it’, as Halifax at one point states. Churchill is surrounded by feeble men and backed up by quietly strong women.
It’s a shame Wright doesn’t do more to allow these women to shine, in all honesty. Miss Layton serves a purpose but little beyond that and Kristin Scott-Thomas gets far too little material as Clemmy, Churchill’s faithful wife who has stuck with the man through his years of public service. Churchill exists in a man’s world but Darkest Hour is often at pains to remind us the power and importance of women behind the men in that world, women who are far more capable than most of the aforementioned weak men in Parliament, but the script affords them little. Every attempt is made to shine the spotlight on Churchill and raise him with the kind of fantastical theatricality Wright often imbues within his pictures. Darkest Hour may be grounded in more of a serious historical context, but its lack of subtlety and grand, stage play aspirations remove you from the reality.
If it does one thing truly right, its the scope of Churchill’s character arc. Darkest Hour invests you in Oldman’s superlative performance and helps you understand his journey, battling forces across the oceans and in his own cabinet, in order to overcome the defeatism that has infected the government in what was arguably a crux-point of history. Whether Oldman’s take goes down as one of the best Churchill performances in history is one for the ages, given he’s certainly not in anything close to a satisfying biographical depiction of the man’s life, but Joe Wright’s film does successfully depict the strength and power of oracy, of belief in some level of manifest national destiny, through such a towering historical figure.
There nonetheless remains a feeling that Darkest Hour isn’t always entirely true to its convictions, or true to the audience in what it wants to communicate. Mind you, we are ‘post-truth’ now. Perhaps that’s the whole point.