‘He’s a man-like any other’ Kristin Scott Thomas’ ‘Clemmy’ Churchill tells Lily James’ Elizabeth Layton early on in Darkest Hour. I can only wish that director Joe Wright and screenplay writer Anthony McCarter had stuck to this sentiment throughout this reenactment of Churchill’s ascension from unlikely, rebuffed Prime Minister to galvanising national war-time hero. The only real difference between Wright’s portrayal of one of the formative moments in Churchill’s career and others past (such as Richard Loncraine’s Gathering Storm and Thaddeus O’Sullivan’s Into the Storm) is the mobilisation of a whimsical humour that attempts to level the grandiosity of the historical figure. It comes across as an attempt to stymie a nakedly hagiographic approach, but it doesn’t work. The only victory to be salvaged here is Gary Oldman’s impressive impersonation that deserves some praise for its dedication.
Indicated instantly from cinematographer Bruno Delbonnel’s hard-lit sets, the spotlight is on Britain’s most desperate hour and the days counting down to defeat are thrown large upon the screen. Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain (Ronald Pickup) has lost the confidence of his Party and Parliament as Hitler marches across Europe, a successor is needed. Enter the unwanted and maverick Winston Churchill to step into the role. Deplored by the Party, especially the sternly Halifax (Stephen Dillane) and cautious King George (Ben Mendelsohn), Churchill advocates for an unflinching defence against the Nazi threat. Earning him only disloyal scheming from his Cabinet, Churchill feels his hold of the nation and its military forces slipping from his grasp as they are forced back to an impossible retreat from Dunkirk. As the darkest hour approaches, will he lose his nerve and the people’s faith and be forced to surrender?
The real shame of Wright and McCarter’s historical drama is that it does attempt to establish an atmosphere of crisis born of indecision and desperation early on. While the figure of Churchill looms in the wings (literally introduced in the smoky shadows of his bedroom), there is little faith that this breakfast-champagne swilling, blustering old man can do anything to turn the tide. Leaving aside the dreadfully wobbly RP-British accents of Dillane, Mendelsohn and practically every supporting cast member, Wright builds a sense of dread as the birds-eye camera view spirals away from the crumbling Anglo-French lines across a burning Europe. Much of the trepidation ripples out from Oldman’s Churchill. Oldman has uncannily reproduced the physical posture (though the quivering jowls can look quite unrealistic under the hard-light) but also creates a believable private emotional life (his vocal impersonation doesn’t, however, surpass Brendan Gleeson’s imitation). Watch how his blustering stridency turns to childish submissiveness in his scenes with a ghostly Scott Thomas and his stuttering dismay at President Roosevelt’s non-intervention, his performance complimented by Wright’s boxed-frame on the lonely, beset man. Oldman turns in an imposing but quietly affecting central performance that is worthy of praise for its physical and emotional detail.
However, much else in McCarter’s screenplay is the typical nostalgia and post-imperial melancholic fluff that we might expect from a Second World War period drama. While Churchill’s elevation is portrayed as troubling initially, McCarter never allows for a moral, political or personal complexity to make the drama genuinely involving. Instead his and Wright’s hindsight act to validate Churchill’s bold resolve while presenting the pro-appeasement lobby of Chamberlain and Halifax as treacherous naysayers. These two even meet in the shade of the Parliamentary rose-gardens like backstabbers out of House of Cards. It might have served Darkest Hour better if the position of appeasement was given a fair representation as a viable, if misguided, option. This would have allowed Churchill’s insistence against surrender a genuine, immediate sense of potentially misplaced courage but instead Wright and McCarter opt for the easier route by demeaning the detractors. As such, Wright and McCarter retreat into the ‘Great Man of History’ grandstanding that continues to affirm Churchill’s legacy in media representations and national discourse.
Yet Darkest Hour’s ‘darkest hour’ comes in a scene that is, at best, sentimentally insipid and, at worst, wilfully distorting. This fictional moment depicts the Prime Minister skipping his car-ride to Parliament descending into the London Underground and amongst the ‘common-folk’. In this, Wright tries to suggest a bridge between the ‘will of the British people’ (seen often in a romantically slow-motion gaze from the window of Churchill’s car) to his now famous ‘We Will Never Surrender’ speech. In doing so, he denigrates the masses by transforming them into fawning British stereotypes (‘butchers, bakers, candle-stick makers’) while also casting aside Churchill’s imperial-colonialist career as he sentimentally clasps the hand of a black passenger on the Tube. It is an entirely unnecessary and pathetic attempt to position Churchill as a true ‘man of the people’.
Whatever I might think of the actual man Winston Churchill and whatever I thought Darkest Hour was going to be before the showing, I never expected it to be a silly, televisual romp. While Wright and McCarter could have aspired to a more nuanced portrayal of the historical figure and this often romanticised period of British history, they abscond into an envisioning of the past that is not far off from Michael Bay’s Pearl Habour. As such, Darkest Hour scores an easy and hollow victory that is unremarkable in British cinema, but will no doubt appeal to the patriots.