The Heart of the Matter
Your regular correspondent has found himself unable to get to the cinema to review a new release. Instead, a look at a notable film from earlier in the year which got overlooked at the time...
Another week, another film about the Second World War – on this occasion it is Joe Wright's Darkest Hour, a based-on-fact drama about the first days of Winston Churchill as the British Prime Minister in 1940 (not to be confused with the bobbins Timur Bekmambetov alien invasion movie of the same name from a few years back). We seem to be in the midst of a bunch of these at the moment – last year, after all, there was Christopher Nolan's Dunkirk, which concerned itself with almost exactly the same period of history, and a film about Winston Churchill directed by Jonathon Teplitzky, starring Brian Cox as Churchill himself, the name of which momentarily escapes me. Is there a particular reason for this particular spate of films on the same subject? Well, maybe: we shall come to that, probably.
I would imagine (or hope) that the events covered by Darkest Hour are already known to most people, in the UK at least. It is May 1940, and the position of the British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain (Ronald Pickup) has become untenable following his role in attempting to appease Hitler the previous year. The obvious candidate to succeed him, Lord Halifax (Stephen Dillane), is unacceptable to the Labour Party, who will be a part of the new government; the only man for them is Winston Churchill (Gary Oldman), widely considered a self-serving maverick whose main loyalty is to himself.
The King (Ben Mendelsohn) is duly persuaded to ask Churchill to form a government, and he of course agrees, having been angling for the job all his adult life. But it begins to look like a poisoned chalice, as the forces of Nazi Germany invade Belgium and the Netherlands, France begins to crumble, and the British army finds itself in full retreat towards the French coast, with no realistic prospect of escape…
Given the situation, and with the United States unwilling to involve itself in a European war, the wise old heads of the war cabinet are in no doubt as to what the situation requires: a negotiated peace, responding to the peace overtures which Hitler's Italian allies are already making. To do otherwise would be to expose Britain to the most terrible danger. If Churchill refuses to listen, then he has to be removed from office and replaced by someone more pragmatic. Faced with opposition both at home and abroad, is he really justified in sticking to his principles?
There are, obviously, many things one can say about the less palatable aspects of Winston Churchill, and his many utterances which would (hopefully) be career-ending nowadays. This is a man who at various points in his life was a racist, a keen advocate of the use of chemical weapons and also a cheerleader for eugenics. Yet this is also a figure who seems to transcend easy categorisation: unreconstructed old brute he may have been, but his is the example that seems to prove that one man can shape the course of history – as the popular legend has it, it was Churchill alone who kept Britain defiant and fighting, standing alone against the Nazi tyranny, almost as an act of will.
The notion of plucky little Britain going it alone against the rest of the world has become somewhat more loaded in the last eighteen months of so, and I wonder if this isn't to some degree responsible for the recent surge in movies about the British bulldog spirit (and so on). Personally I think these are dangerous parallels to draw, but everyone in this particular area is in the process of mythmaking no matter what they happen to believe, so I suppose it is inescapable.
Certainly, Darkest Hour sticks close to the popular legend for most of its length – Churchill can be a bit inappropriate at times, but is generally lovably so, and is (of course) purveyor of a nice line in scathing wit, and possessor of a mighty oratorical talent. No real surprises there, then.
What's slightly more unexpected is Churchill's resemblance to a famous actor-director from New Cross. Three and a half hours in make-up every morning leaves Gary Oldman looking astonishingly like Gary Oldman under heavy prosthetics, and the fact he honestly doesn't look very much like Churchill is a bit distracting. He is on full throttle here, though, and while his turn seemed to me to be somewhat awkwardly pitched between an acting performance and an act of impersonation, he certainly keeps the film very watchable, which is just as well: he's in the vast majority of scenes. He's particularly good when it comes to the aspects of Churchill we're less used to seeing – the film often focuses on his vulnerability, his self-doubt, and his occasional bouts of depression.
Not that the support isn't good too: apart from Pickup and Dillane, Kristin Scott Thomas plays Lady Churchill and is pretty good in what isn't a terribly big part, and Lily James plays Churchill's secretary – it does rather seem that James' part owes its prominence to the need to have a major character who is both female and under forty, if only for the sake of the poster.
And for the most part the film tells the story rather well, working as both a wartime drama and a political thriller. It's not quite so well told that you completely forget how it's all going to turn out, but it does summon up the desperate atmosphere of the time very effectively, not to mention the various pressures on Churchill.
The real question, of course, is that of why Churchill was so implacable in his will to keep Britain fighting the Nazis when victory seemed impossible and a negotiated peace of some kind was a distinct possibility. Where did he find his conviction and resolve? Why did he hold this particular belief with quite such strength? This is the reason why we remember him as a national hero and key figure in British history, after all.
And, to be honest, Darkest Hour fluffs this most crucial issue. It does offer an explanation, but it's one that reeks of the Hollywood script unit and doesn't remotely ring true to history. Its proposition – that Churchill was simply embodying the will of the British people – feels rather too smug and convenient, to say nothing of the fact that the very phrase 'the will of the people' has become rather loaded and subject to misuse of late.
In the end, this is the problem with Darkest Hour: the film is well-directed and well staged, although some may find it a little dry and stagey (most of the action consists of middle-aged men arguing in cramped rooms), but it is ultimately telling a story that most people will already be at least partly familiar with. We all know what happened and when, but the real question is why events took the turn that they did. The film does not have a convincing answer to this question.
I mean, it's not what you'd call a bad film, and the performances are very good – it is the kind of film that wins awards, simply because of the subject matter, and you can see why Oldman would take it on – you're infinitely more likely to win an Oscar playing Churchill than you are Commissioner Gordon, after all. But it doesn't have anything new to bring to its material, and doesn't offer any real psychological insights into its subject. Worth seeing, if you like this sort of thing, but unlikely to go down in history as a classic by any means.