Unpopular with his own cabinet and under pressure to enter into peace negotiations with Nazi Germany, once he became PM Winston Churchill’s character became symbolic of wartime spirit, his rousing speeches among the most famous examples of political oratory.
What a shame, then, that the portrayal of such a figure should be fumbled so badly in new film Darkest Hour. Singularly lacking in subtlety or sophistication, it’s as if director Joe Wright is worried that Churchill’s (Gary Oldman) speeches aren’t effective enough without ladling on spoonful after spoonful of Dario Marianelli’s gloopy, generic score, ironically drowning out the genuinely powerful oratory. Or that Parliamentary debates affecting the outcome of the war would be too boring if not shot in moody gloom with shafts of dust-speckled light illuminating the MPs.
Seen through the perspective of new typist Elizabeth Layton (Lily James, doing as much as she can with not much), we first see Churchill sat in bed, tucking into a fried breakfast. Illuminated only by a match as he lights his customary cigar, it’s the sort of fetishised iconography you expect from a Bond film, not a historical drama, and speaks volumes about what the film deems important in Churchill’s myth. Where the film should be humanising Churchill, it instead reduces him to a cigar-chomping, blustering caricature.
Darkest Hour portrays Churchill as a choleric stalwart standing against the capitulating cowardice of his cabinet. History proved Churchill right, but in 1940 the situation for Britain was truly dire. The pragmatic rationale for peace making was clear, even if the moral case for capitulating to fascism wasn’t. But in portraying Halifax (Stephen Dillane) and former PM Neville Chamberlain (Ronald Pickup) as two-dimensional dissemblers, Wright wastes the dramatic irony that might have arose in giving the case for pragmatism a fair hearing. In the process, the moral case for seeing the war through is flattened out a simplistic dichotomy of Churchill: right, everyone else: wrong.
Darkest Hour is not without merit – Oldman really is superb in the starring role, getting the balance right between impersonation and interpretation. He positively shines when he spits his famous line at Halifax that you can’t reason with a tiger when your head is in its mouth. The supporting cast, too, are good, particularly Kristin Scott Thomas as his wife Clementine and the aforementioned James, who do as much as they can with what they’re given. But the nadir of the film – a baffling, cringe-worthy indulgence – is saved for the penultimate scene. On his way to deliver his ‘on the beaches’ speech in Parliament, Churchill spontaneously leaps out of his car to take the underground instead. Unsurprisingly, this causes a bit of a stir among the other passengers.
The laughs this gets are passable, but what really sinks the scene is its wretched, contrived sentimentality. In a total historical fabrication, Churchill asks the passengers if he should sue for peace with Germany. The idea that a little girl on the tube shouting ‘never’ could have persuaded the Prime Minister to keep Britain in the fray, not to mention inspired his speech is, quite frankly, insulting. Insulting to the audience’s intelligence, to Churchill’s oratory and judgement, and to the immense sacrifice of the millions who died in the war. It is a staggering misstep in a film that does not trust the power of the unvarnished story of Churchill’s premiership.