Darkest Hour, 30th January 2018
I wonder when they decided? Is it what the producers demanded at the outset? Was it always there in Antony McCarten’s script? Did director Joe Wright, (who has shown in his stage work at the Young Vic with Life of Galileo and A Season in the Congo that he can do innovation), see this as the only way? Whatever the case somewhere along the line Darkest Hour went full on lachrymose. Now this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. I just wasn’t quite prepared for quite such a mawkish, tear-jerker.
Now I have confessed before that I am a sucker for a bit of Churchill and Dunkirk spirit having been roped in against my subsequent better judgement by Christopher Nolan’s extravaganza (Dunkirk film review ****) and even tolerating Brian Cox in last year’s other eponymous biopic (Churchill film review **). Most everyone of a certain age who professes some sort or attachment to “British” identity is going to have strong emotions about Winnie, whether swivel-eyed Brexit loon, or dismissive, metropolitan elitist, and everything in between. For good or bad Churchill is intricately bound up with our idea of this country. Nation-states are lines on a map bound up with largely fictional shared histories and Churchill is integral to “our” story. Unfortunately his myth also contributes to the heady exceptionalism that has got us into the pickle we now face.
So how to bottle this powerful cocktail? Well as it turns out in a surprisingly orthodox way. First up get an everyman character actor of unparalleled class. How was Gary Oldman going to be anything other than brilliant in the role? Especially when loaded up with state of the art prosthetics, fattened up like a Christmas turkey and fed copious brandies and cigars. The bookies can’t even be arsed to take your money on the Best Actor Oscar. Whether you want your Winnie showing why oratory and rhetoric can still shape the direction of human progress, or riven with self-doubt, or consumed with hectoring bluster, or being a p*ssed baby or delivering exquisite bon-mots, then Mr Oldman is your man. Kristin Scott-Thomas is the perfect Clemmie, devoted no-nonsenseness personified, Ben Mendelsohn turns in a thoughtful portrayal of George VI (until he becomes Winnie’s bessie), Lily James is the mandatory plucky Lizzie Layton and Ronald Pickup as Chamberlain and, especially, Stephen Dillane as Halifax excel as the deluded appeasers. Cinematography, sound, music, sets, costumes, are all perfectly drilled.
And to cap it all we even get the daft scene in the tube. Why not? Who says you need absolute fidelity to the “truth” given we cannot really know what the “truth” was in the minds of these people in those fateful days. But having Winnie surprise, and then canvas the views of, a carriage full of diverse yet indomitable, “gor-blimey” Londoners, really does ratchet up the blub quotient, at least for this old fella. And he would still have been quicker walking.
I know I should be snarky here. I know I should be whingeing about the playing fast and loose with events. I know I should be pretending not to be moved or reminding you that Churchill was, in so many ways, a bit of a c*nt. But I won’t. Because with his direct story, marvellous cast and clever camera-work, (spiced up with the occasional visual treat), I reckon Joe Wright has ended up telling a cracking story. Which gets to the heart of why we need leaders who know right from wrong and why they need words to speak truth. Powerful words. For that surely is why, despite all his human faults, Churchill’s myth is grounded in a reality.