Arguably the most famous Englishman in history, Winston Churchill may well be the most-depicted Englishman in the movies. Just in the last year or so, we have seen him admirably portrayed by three highly-competent actors in three, quite separate works. Brian Cox did a very good job of portraying him in last year’s “Churchill”; John Lithgow played a very convincing Churchill (apart from an occasional slight leakage of American accent) in the superb Netflix series “The Crown”; and now, most remarkable of all, Gary Oldman takes on the role in director Joe Wright’s truly excellent “Darkest Hour”.
“Darkest Hour” has one giant quality that, sadly, its contemporary opposite number “Churchill” lacks in spades: a fair degree of historical accuracy. “Darkest Hour” tells the story of the tumultuous two or three weeks after Churchill becomes Prime Minister of the UK in early May 1940 until the Dunkirk evacuation. It was a time of crisis for the man; it was a time of supreme crisis and near-destruction for the nation. Churchill is rightly famous for taking hold of a disastrous situation by the scruff of its neck, rallying the nation at the last moment, and helping set the stage for eventual victory in World War II.
Churchill only got the job because no one else wanted it. Everyone wanted Lord Halifax instead – Churchill’s own party, even King George VI. Only trouble was, Halifax didn’t. Once Churchill got the job, he was up against the “pro-negotiations” faction in his Cabinet. As the French and British armies collapsed in France in May 1940, this group, led by Chamberlain and Halifax, favoured negotiations with the Germans. Churchill, not trusting Hitler in the slightest, wanted to fight. This schism threatened to sink Churchill’s government. Only by smart Parliamentary manoeuvring, and with increasing support from George VI, did Churchill prevail. All this is excitingly shown in Joe Wright’s film.
The movie is structured around several of Churchill’s inspiring speeches at this time, particularly his “I have nothing to offer but blood, toil, tears and sweat” and “we will fight on the beaches” speeches. Oratory and the power of verbal persuasion are at the heart of this movie about politics in a time of trial. We criticise our politicians today for being all talk and no action. This film shows that the right words uttered at the right time by the right person can change history.
The acting performances are sterling. Gary Oldman is Churchill. The prosthetics he had to wear to achieve the character are quite remarkable. Kristin Scott Thomas plays his supportive wife Clementine in a tensely-drawn performance which suits well the prevailing atmosphere of crisis. She is shown as, in many respects, the power behind the throne: he listened to her when he often wouldn’t listen to anyone else. Stephen Dillane as the urbane but willing-to-compromise Lord Halifax is excellent. So too is the veteran British actor Ronald Pickup as Neville Chamberlain, the dying ex-Prime Minister who, as Party kingmaker, was crucial to Churchill’s survival. Another character vital to Churchill’s future was the monarch, George VI, admirably played by Australian actor Ben Mendelsohn. George VI was initially doubtful, but rapidly became a key Churchill supporter. All this is well shown in the film.
Joe Wright and his screenwriters have pretty well got their history right. There is only one scene that is almost certainly fictional: the scene where Churchill rides the Underground to gauge the mood of the ordinary people in the street. Their support bolsters him to stare down the pro-negotiation members of his Cabinet. It is a neat literary and dramatic device; it points up beautifully Churchill’s dilemma – but it is almost certainly completely fictional. No matter: it helps, not hinders, the movie’s sense of crisis and unfolding history.
Although we all know the outcome of the story, Joe Wright’s supreme achievement here is to establish, maintain, and build up to an intense, gut-wrenching level, a sense of growing drama, tension, and crisis. There is virtually no on-screen war action; most of the action takes place inside the Houses of Parliament; it is a wordy and speechifying exercise in powerful, increasingly desperate politicians manoeuvring for advantage – yet the director has achieved edge-of-your-seat tension as Churchill struggles to hold his government together as the Nazis mass across the Channel.
These days, Churchill is not everyone’s cup of tea. He is rightly criticised for being an old-style British imperialist – after all, he did oppose independence for India. His military abilities were often disastrously wrong: his failed Gallipoli campaign in 1915 and his doomed intervention in Greece in 1941. He was also infamous for his ability to be quite beastly to junior staff: In the film, Lily James’ almost cameo portrayal of the (initially) unfortunate personal assistant Elizabeth Layton makes that point. But yet, he was the right man at the right moment in history. He was a deeply flawed man, but a great one. Without his intervention in May 1940, Nazi Germany would have won the war.
This film makes a very good double feature to watch together with Christopher Nolan’s recent epic “Dunkirk”. Joe Wright shows us the political lead-up to the evacuation, while Nolan graphically shows us what happened on those beaches in France all those years ago.
My star rating for “Darkest Hour”: * * * * 1/2