Film review: The Darkest Hour. Director: Joe Wright
Set in May 1940, Darkest Hour is a powerful film. Scenes are filmed in montages of shadow, dust and rain. Sombre shades of black, taupe and grey, denoting the mood of the time, dominate the screen. But there are uplifting glimpses of light and colour so the audience can know that all is not lost.
Gary Oldman’s portrayal of Churchill is mesmerising, especially when delivering those magnificent speeches, but at times can spill over into caricature. Churchill is first seen in bed, smoking one of his ubiquitous cigars and drinking whisky while spluttering out dictation to his new and terrified secretary, hinting at his dazzling writing and oratorical skills to which the audience is treated later.
The narrative is character-driven rather than action-focused. Darkest Hour centres on the relationships between Churchill and his long-suffering wife Clementine (elegantly portrayed by Kristin Scott Thomas), his secretary Elizabeth Layton, his War Cabinet sparring partners Neville Chamberlain and Lord Halifax, and on the eventual warm mutual respect between him and George VI. These relationships are skilfully woven together and developed with depth. Through the many conversations and arguments between the characters the audience learns that Churchill was a humorous, irascible, unique, insecure and courageous man.
Churchill’s nervousness on becoming prime minister, despite its being a lifelong ambition, and his concerns about his ability to do the job make him endearing. He is very much aware that he is intensely disliked and distrusted by the King and most of his Tory colleagues. Despite his initial waverings he is adamant in his belief that Britain will eventually be victorious.
Decisions were difficult for Churchill. Plagued by self-doubt and depression, disturbed by his mistakes in the disastrous Gallipoli campaign, he finds redemption in the rescue of the British Army from Dunkirk.
The film shows how Chamberlain and Halifax, initially goaded by the King, plotted a coup against Churchill. History has been unkind to Chamberlain, but in this portrayal he is not only an appeaser but an old soldier desperate to save British lives. This multi-faceted and non-judgmental approach to character development is one of Darkest Hour’s strengths.
Chamberlain and Halifax’s desperate need to appease Hitler and hold peace talks is juxtaposed with Churchill’s resolve to fight the monstrosities of Hitler and the Nazis. All three men are haunted by the First World War and fear further loss of lives, yet their approach to conflict could not be more different. Here ‘peace talks’ becomes a euphemism for cowardly weakness, contrasted with Churchill’s courageous defiance to fight for victory.
Peace is an empty word when faced with bloodthirsty tyrants such as Hitler. Churchill was a fallible visionary and knew Hitler was a monster, not the rational politician that Chamberlain and Halifax misguidedly and frantically hoped he was.
The bleak parallels between then and now are infuriating and interesting. In 1940 the Labour Party believed in the capability of Britain to survive on its own and fight the Nazis. Their patriotism could not be more different from the twisted self-hatred that most current Labour MPs seem to have for their own country. Churchill is now an icon for modern Conservatives yet in 1940 the majority of Tories did not support him. He was propelled into his position mainly because the Opposition party, Labour, supported him.
Today a grouchy, chain-smoking, hard-drinking and ageing white man would be viewed as too politically incorrect to be prime minister and the tyrannical Hitler would have been lauded for his vegetarianism – a sad indictment of contemporary politics.
Churchill’s resolve to conquer the scourge of brutal terror is something that is lacking in today’s political leaders. We in the West are in danger of losing the freedoms so valued by Churchill and so heroically fought for by his generation. My father-in-law fought in the Norwegian and Italian campaigns. He and his wife did not see each other for two years. How disapproving they both would have been by the current cowardly appeasement of cultural Marxism and Islamism.
A small fault in the film is the almost constant music, used as an emotional tool to instruct the audience how to feel. This is a patronising annoyance especially as the film has its most compelling moments when all is silent except for stark dialogue. History enthusiasts might find some of the inaccuracies irritating but the film is so delightful that it should not matter. These add to, not detract from, the enjoyment. Darkest Hour is at its best when small physical gestures illuminate the emotions of each character – a clever subtlety and a highlight.
When the credits rolled on to the screen I was disappointed. I did not want the film to end. I wanted to carry on watching how Churchill, an isolated and eccentric man, skilfully captured the nation’s fighting spirit with his enthralling words and courageously steered Britain away from surrender to victory. How I yearn for a Churchill now.