Darkest Hour, a drama about the change in Prime Minister in Britain in May 1940 as Europe falls to advancing Nazi troops, is a triumphant return to filmmaking by British director Joe Wright. It has flaws (and I’ll get to those) but those are more than outweighed by its virtues: excellent performances, a gripping narrative and a screenplay awash with contemporary references. Beaten to the punch in cinemas last June by director Jonathan Teplitsky’s frankly dull Churchill, it is the one Winston Churchill film of 2017-18 that you’ll need to see.
Gary Oldman is inspired casting as First Lord of the Admiralty Churchill, called to replace Neville Chamberlain as Prime Minister of the United Kingdom after the latter loses the confidence of the House. Wright and his screenwriter Anthony McCarten (The Theory of Everything and the forthcoming troubled Freddie Mercury biopic, Bohemian Rhapsody) don’t delve too deeply into the politics of the time, but they position Churchill as a maverick with a talent for rhetoric but a litany of painful political misjudgements to his name. Oldman’s baggage is screen villainy. He intimidates and terrifies – qualities that are perfect for a Churchill that does exactly that to his new typist Elizabeth Layton (Lily James).
Unlike many actors cast as Churchill – Robert Hardy is best known for his portrayal in numerous television series – Oldman looks nothing like him, either in face or body shape. He is, however, an excellent mimic and has the reputation of being a lone wolf himself – he doesn’t have a publicist. As you watch him, peering through intentionally under-lit scenes – you can’t have a ‘darkest hour’ without it seeming gloomy, even in May – you simultaneously see Churchill and Oldman in facially reconfigured make-up (by Kazuhiro Tsuji). The actor’s eyes, misty with vulnerability, give Churchill his humanity. This is no comedy skit caricature.
As the film makes clear, Churchill was not the ideal choice to lead the country during troubled times – and here the contemporary parallels kick in. He was chosen to be acceptable to the Labour Party to head a government of national unity. However, there is a plot within his War Cabinet, orchestrated by Lord Halifax (Stephen Dillane) and ex-Prime Minister Chamberlain (Ronald Pickup), to seek terms of surrender with Adolf Hitler. If Churchill refuses outright to engage in peace talks, committing the country to a war that they cannot possibly win alone, then he will be submitted to a vote of no confidence.
Certainly, when you see Labour leader Clement Atlee (David Schofield) on the sidelines waiting out a crisis, you cannot help but think of the attitude of the current Labour leader, Jeremy Corbyn, to the Brexit talks. Indeed, you can see Corbyn being inspired by history, as Churchill’s success begat Labour’s post-war victory. But there are other Corbyn parallels as well, notably in a frankly groan-worthy scene when Churchill decides to take a London Underground train one stop to Westminster and elicits the views of the passengers before repeating them to MPs. The scene demonstrates that he is a man of the people, but it sure is toe-curling.
The rest of the film is much better. Scenes between Churchill and King George VI (Ben Mendelsohn) have a convincing awkwardness, of two men going through a forced formality not knowing how to express their true feelings; Churchill much preferred Edward to the King who replaced him. Oldman’s scenes with Kristin Scott Thomas show Churchill’s gentler side; difficult to countenance with his extravagance for cigars and scotch, but nevertheless committed to standing up for his people.
Churchill’s relationship with his typist has contemporary resonance too. He initially bullies Elizabeth (a fictional composite) and sends her fleeing from the office, and, in one Harvey Weinstein-evoking scene, even informs her that he is ‘of nature’ (that is, nude coming out of the bath). He is sensitive to her concerns and breaks protocol to show her the War Room. I can’t believe this happened in reality, but in narrative terms, it works fine.
Wright is a core exponent of the ‘oner’ – the long take that establishes a mood and puts the characters in perspective. At one point, the camera follows characters in an underground bunker and then, in a continuous shot, frames them as seen from the sky, moving faster and further away from them to illustrate their vulnerability. It is an effective use of technique.
The film also describes Churchill’s first military crisis – the evacuation of 300,000 allied troops from the beaches of Dunkirk. In order to prevent the Nazis from reaching Dunkirk too quickly, he orders 4,000 troops at nearby Calais to engage with the Nazis to draw their fire. In the film, the strategy appals the Generals, but as history has shown, it was right, sacrificing 4,000 for 300,000. Wright also gives us a bleakly comic telephone scene with President Roosevelt (David Strathairn), who is unable by US law to provide assistance to the British, even supplying them with the planes that they purchased. ‘We can take the planes to the Canadian border and you can get horses – not motorised vehicles – to drag them over,’ suggests Roosevelt, in his best approximation of helpfulness.
It is a tribute to the skill of Wright and his collaborators that Darkest Hour exerted a palpable grip on the audience mostly through dialogue. Returning from the screening, I heard a group of young people at the bus stop talking, without irony, about joining the armed forces. Is our country really on a war footing?
Darkest Hour is out in cinemas now!