Darkest Hour gives us the British bulldog as belligerent underdog in this un-illuminating portrayal of legendary Prime Minister Winston Churchill and his first few weeks in office.
It’s 1940 and Neville Chamberlain (Ronald Pickup; dignified and resigned in a role originally intended for John Hurt) has been driven out of office. His chosen successor, Lord Halifax (Stephen Dillane; dryly mannered but occasionally kindled into fervour), decides the time is not yet right for him to assume the role of Prime Minister. And so – cometh the hour, cometh the man – the office falls to Churchill (Gary Oldman; more on him shortly).
Despite being reportedly the “one man the opposition will accept”, no one seems to want him. There’s gossip in the corridors of Westminster: his fellow MPs speak of Churchill freely as a self-serving opportunist, a warmonger, and a drunk. Even King George (brought to life by Ben Mendelsohn in a – thinly sketched – portrait of rhotastic reserve) refers with distaste to his “disastrous” record. We, of course, with our historical perspective of Churchill as The Great ManTM, know what awaits.
Anthony McCarten’s screenplay, similar to his work on The Theory of Everything, fails to examine these character flaws; focusing instead on Churchill’s struggles against those looking to sue for peace with Hitler. Without this insight into his character, though, and with the history already a matter of record – and indeed, the subject of two films this past year – there’s nothing at stake in Darkest Hour. The Nazis may be marching across Europe, our own army may be stranded across The Channel, but Churchill, despite the travails of the moment, has already won.
Oldman bellows and blusters, speechifies, and thrusts out his bottom lip defiantly, but while it is, superficially, an impressive – indeed, likely to soon be Oscar-winning performance – he struggles to locate the soul beneath those iconic mannerisms and some, admittedly seamless, prosthetics. This is Churchill for public consumption: soft-bellied rather than crusty, the magnificent yet underdone centrepiece of a magnificent Sunday roast complete with all the trimmings of a prestige drama.
His wife Clemmie (Kristin Scott Thomas; furious emotion beneath impeccable poise), criticises him for profligacy or his bullying the secretary (played by Lily James; notably younger than her real-life counterpart). From the unassumingly charming Anthony Eden (Samuel West), then Churchill’s deputy, to the generals forced to deal with Churchill’s intractability ,”long-suffering” is pretty much the word of the day
The film is wonderfully lit by Bruno Delbonnel; shafts of pale sunlight breaking in on dim chambers. The score, composed by Dario Marianelli & Vikingur Olafsson, is energetic and orchestral, capturing something of its subject’s resolution and wit. Wright’s direction shows craftsmanship; aerial shots tracking high above the chaos and explosions consuming Europe, but it’s all, as a friend of mine recently put it, a bit RADA.
It doesn’t help, that the film’s patronising view of “ordinary” people is put on show in one hilariously ill-advised scene set on the Underground (otherwise referred to as “THAT scene”) in which a gaggle of generic Londoners bolshily displaying their can-do spirit. Only one scene in which a subdued Churchill tries to talk a noncommittal FDR (voiced by David Strathairn) into fulfilling a promise to deliver weapons hints at more.
There is a great drama to be made about Sir Winston Churchill; one that gets beyond the myth, that truly delves into his complexities. This, despite its technical expertise and a few key performances, isn’t it.