Watching Joe Wright’s return to the rarefied plane of prestige – and heritage to boot – filmmaking, following the execrable folly of the panned Pan, I was struck by the difference an engaged director, one who cares about his characters, makes to material. Only last week, Ridley Scott’s serviceable All the Money in the World made for a pointed illustration of strong material in the hands of someone with no such investment, unless they’re androids. Wright’s dedication to a relatable Winston Churchill ensures that, for the first hour-plus, Darkest Hour is a first-rate affair, a piece of myth-making that barely puts a foot wrong. It has that much in common with Wright’s earlier Word War II tale, Atonement. But then, like Atonement, it comes unstuck.
Wright’s greatest successes have resulted from his excursions into British history or literature, his gift to them being a rare visual acumen and disinclination towards starchy reverence. This can be his undoing – the stage trappings he inflicted on Anna Karenina – but with a story as talky and potentially hidebound as Darkest Hour, it’s a godsend. The first act and a half crackle with energy, and the screenplay from Anthony McCarten (The Theory of Everything and, er, Worzel Gummidge Down Under) excels at positioning Churchill as the reluctantly requested underdog, disliked by his party and regent and only ushered into office because he’s the sole Tory the Labour party, offering a coalition under the understanding of the threat of a greater foe, will accept.
So we get to know a difficult man through those he impacts most upon, each skilfully sketched such that you know just where they do or don’t stand in relation to our protagonist, how they will help or hinder his mountain to climb.
Even Lily James’ predictable audience-identification figure, secretary Elizabeth Layton, offers a degree of variation; a scene in which Churchill shows her the Map Room and she is overcome at the sight of pins representing the brave boys in France looks, on the face of it, like unearned emoting, until a later exchange reveals she has lost a brother there. Her reactions also form agreeable comic interludes, be it Churchill announcing he is leaving the bathroom “in a state of nature”, or her instructing him on the meaning of his Victory sign as initially presented. That said, she inevitably slips into the status of bystander, once all eyes are on her boss.
Kristin Scott Thomas, who it’s still impossible to see and countenance that Hugh Grant went with Andie McDowall in Four Weddings and a Funeral, colours in a hugely affectionate image of Mr and Mrs Churchill’s domestic life, one of heavy drinking and near bankruptcy.
And then there’s Churchill’s opposition, in the form of Viscount Halifax (Stephen Dillane), initially hot favourite to replace Neville Chamberlain (a marvellous Ronald Pickup, who took the role when John Hurt was forced to drop out), both dead set on suing for peace and supported in said goal by King George VI (in contrast to everything else I’ve ever seen him in, I didn’t even realise George was Ben Mendelsohn until after the fact).
This is, of course, propaganda filmmaking at its most pronounced, the purpose being to underpin the war PM’s iconic status. To that end, Darkest Hour only underscores Chamberlain the appeaser; in contrast, some have reappraised his tactics as effectively fighting for time while Britain’s military strength was rebuilt. Added to which, perhaps the most notable legacy of the Munich Agreement is the subsequent appropriation of the spectre of appeasement to justify various unjustifiable interventions and campaigns “lest there are similar tyrannical consequences”.
This tack feeds into the unfortunate broad strokes of the last third of the picture. It also makes it crucially clear that Chamberlain failed in an area where his successor excelled: at rhetoric (it’s pretty much the last thing Halifax, who is portrayed as biding his time to make the right usurping move, begrudgingly admits after the famous “We shall fight on the beaches” address).
The picture reconfigures Churchill’s flaws as foibles that maketh the man, be they his drinking (“Practice” he responds, when the King asks how he manages to partake during the day), or being out of depth in face of new military tactics and advances (and noting, but not dwelling on, his previous military campaign failures). In particular, during a meeting with the French Prime Minister.
Crucially, though, he’s willing to make the hard decisions when others wilt (the Siege of Calais). He’s a constant wit, even on the job (“Tell the lord privy seal I am sealed in my privy, and can only take one shit at a time”), but burdened by the inexorable pressure of the same (blackness surrounds the isolated premier deep beneath Whitehall, pushing in from either side; the claustrophobia is palpable as he calls Roosevelt, begging for a bone). Deeply conscientious, he’s accompanied by the ticking clock of mounting casualties across the Channel (a visual coup from Wright, occasionally prone to overdoing his CGI-assisted overhead shots, sees a German bombing run, decimating the landscape, dissolve into the prone body of a soldier).
Where the picture goes wrong is in rebuilding the man after his hour of crisis. There’s serious doubt that Churchill vacillated in the manner depicted over the prospect of making peace, thrust upon him by Halifax and Chamberlain, who calculated a point-blank refusal would force him out of office. In narrative terms, however, it’s a necessary manoeuvre, designed to humanise the leader and reveal openness and empathy as an antidote to the image of the remote politician, out of touch with the people and doing his own bloody thing with wanton disregard. So he gets on the Tube and listens to the common people, and has his instincts reinforced as he rediscovers his right stuff. Hurrah.
Except that this conceit, “a fictionalisation of an ‘emotional truth’” as Wright puts it, entirely lets the air out of the room, from which the picture never really recovers. It comes on the heels of an oddly positioned – in that it should bolster Churchill’s confidence enough that he doesn’t need an additional boost from going walkabout with the proletariat – visit from George VIII, whose change of allegiance is insufficiently motivated and, more damagingly, brandishes the apparently baseless assertion that Hitler is afraid of the PM.
The Underground scene plays shamelessly as ennobling the character, venerating his expansive, inclusive insight and heroism in a way that’s entirely ill-fitting and unearned; the scene is rote and trite, undermining everything that has come before. Wright admitted “you have to be very careful with all that stuff” and he wasn’t wrong. It is possible to make your point with a conflicting portrait of san individual who does positive things, as well as being fundamentally flawed, without resorting to abject misrepresentation. It certainly helps if you want to maintain a modicum of self-respect. The revisionism of this sequence invites the opening of a can of worms Darkest Hour might otherwise have avoided through keeping its ambitions close to its chest.
Churchill is thus re-characterised as liberal and progressive, and in so doing Wright and McCarten insult their audience; this isn’t a piece of fluff like The Greatest Showman, where no one was going to mistake – or shouldn’t have – a musical about PT Barnum as an accurate representation of the real thing. Its particularly galling that Wright goes to such lengths to have the picture’s solitary black character move into frame to take up the PM’s vacated seat, just out of focus, hanging adoringly on his every word and receiving admiring approval for completing his quotation.
It’s an elementary level attempt to salve a man who, after all, enjoyed his role in “a lot of jolly little wars against barbarous peoples”, who considered that “the Aryan stock is bound to triumph”, was strongly in favour of using poison gas on uncivilised tribes, considered Indians “a beastly people with a beastly religion” and whose doctor opined, in respect of his views of other races “Winston thinks only of the colour of their skin”. No, you can’t expect a fictional account to pay the staunchest fidelity to facts, but the scene, quite besides being abject in its sentimentalising and manipulation, begs a stern “Well, actually…” for brazenly attempting to palm off a completely antithetical viewpoint.
Darkest Hour’s intention subsequently is to lift Churchill aloft on a wave of affirmative decisions, his rallying speech to his peers preceding his crucial one to parliament regarding the Dunkirk retreat. But Wright uncharacteristically lets both fall flat. Where the earlier scene, in which Chamberlain initiates a frosty reception to the first speech of the new PM, is electric with tension, this one, soaring on uplifting strings and receiving rapturous applause, flounders leadenly.
The picture also stumbles in its attentiveness to the veil of indoctrination its lead character draws across the country. Darkest Hour is a propaganda piece about a leader already raised to iconic stature subsequently – not least through speeches re-recorded in the ’50s that have been commonly mistaken for the real thing – one that implicitly endorses the use of “just” propaganda; it simply isn’t sharp enough to address those multiple levels. There’s no sense of a serious debate over whether you should lie to the people – Clementine merely has to persuade her doubtful husband it’s necessary, while Chamberlain and Halifax are simply spineless pacificators – and the admission that oratory will always win the day isn’t enough to claim a successful exploration of the theme. Or, to put it another way, it’s about as successful as the filmmakers questioning their own fabrications in the service of further mythologising this figure.
The figure himself, though. It’s a magnificent performance from Gary Oldman, under shrouds of prosthetics that don’t remotely disguise him, but which never seem less than “authentic”. It’s undoubtedly a gift, as showy roles go, one where he gets to run the gamut of emotions, and thus sits understandably at the Lincoln end of the awards-baiting spectrum (for my money, I continue to favour his George Smiley, and if he wins on March 4, Churchill may well be the “career achievement”, one they say in hindsight was deserved but not the most deserved). Of course, he needs to avoid having his personal life and statements damagingly headlined between now and then. Casey Affleck snuck through unscathed last year, leading to Oscar sort-of glory, while James Franco is already scuppered this. I expect Oldman’s personal spin machine is currently running overtime.