Wednesday, 28 February 2018


Of course the major fuss about Darkest Hour is Gary Oldman's performance as Winston Churchill, which is the hot favourite for an Oscar in a couple of days. Darkest Hour is the latest in a series of films about the early days of the Second World War; given Britain's impending exit from the European Union, this retrospection (while the 100th anniversary of the Great War was in progress) is telling. And you could easily look back to 2002's The Gathering Storm as a precursor to this cycle, and to Albert Finney's performance as the benchmark for future Churchills. Because Gathering Storm was made by HBO and BBC for television, Finney wasn't eligible for an Oscar (he did win a TV Bafta and an Emmy).

Oldman's Churchill contrasts with Brian Cox's in another Oscar-eligible film, Churchill. Where Cox lets his own rough edges give Churchill more bite (and makes his self-doubt, which is the movie's theme, that much more telling), the reason Oldman's performance is the odds-on Oscar winner is that it plays so much against his persona as an actor. It is not that his Churchill is a remarkable interpretation, but that it is a bravura force of acting to convince us that an actor who played Sid Vicious or Lee Harvey Oswald can convince against physical type.

And this Oldman does, which is why an Oscar would be deserved. Whether his Churchill is, well, Churchillian, is another matter. Not least the drift into a northern accent (listen to his final words in the film—like the narration of a Hovis advert). He works by accentuating some gestures, particularly of jaw, and by overall bearing, but he also is sometimes seeking to present a kinder, gentler Churchill. This of course is partly down to scripting, and the way the film-makers want to present a softer-centered Winston—this is the charming but self-obsessed Churchill with a touch of the Boris Johnson's about him, especially in his scenes with Kirsten Scott Thomas, although, since she is his wife, perhaps not so Boris. The film sticks to what have become generally accepted tropes of Churchill at war: the young secretary who 'tames' the curmudgeon (Lily James, looking beatific as Churchill recites his speeches accurately) and the requisite King's Speech meetings with King George, which end in friendship and respect. Ben Mendelsohn as George VI is one of a number of actors helped by their casting for their physical resemblance to their characters, and Mendelsohn does not fall back on the speech impediment as he conveys his own resolve to battle on (by staying in London, not evacuating). By contrast, Samuel West is instantly recognisable as Anthony Eden, not because he looks like Eden but because he has a superficial attractiveness and charm and, of course, a moustache.

Churchill's winning over the King (as opposed to George's great friendship with Halifax) is interesting in another sense, because the film creates a fictional trip for Churchill on the underground, one stop to Westminster, which the filmmakers turn into the longest one stop imaginable. The reason is to let the common people, including a West Indian man and a child, express their admiration, and convince Churchill not to sue for peace with Germany. We know he did not need that sort of convincing, and we know he never, ever, got into the underground, not ever, but it is as if Joe Wright has to convince a contemporary audience that Churchill was a real man of the people as much as a man of the King (it is just those Tory toffs who can't abide his pushiness, which the film implies he gets from his American mother, bless them).

But the film, like Brexit, is less about Europe than about the Tory party and their resistance to Churchill's leadership. The key figure here is Lord Halifax (Stephen Dillane) another case of remarkable physical resemblance and played very well as a cross between Jacob Rees-Mogg and John Redwood. There has been some criticism of the film for taking small liberties with the whole question of Chamberlain's successor, but in general it gets the basic tenor correct and cannot be faulted for sometimes dramatising it with face to face scenes that didn't actually happen. If anything, it slights the support for Churchill within the Tory party (see, for example, Lynne Olson's Troublesome Young Men, which sometimes gets a bit too American touristy, but tells the tale of the young Tory rebels who backed Churchill—and note too Halifax's own memoirs, which were notoriously less than forthright).

The key scenes involve Chamberlain poised to cue the Tory benches to support Churchill's speeches, or not. In the first instance, their silence is deafening, and immediately brings to mind the current Brexit situation, and the fact that it is another case of the Conservative party putting its own squabbles well ahead of the good of the country. Ronald Pickup makes the most of a dying Chamberlain, and in reality these are the film's best scenes, within Parliament, shot to reflect an almost timeless history as well as a smoke-filled room in which deals must be done. A darkest debate, if not hour, and brilliantly shot by Bruno Delbonnel.

It's certainly a more satisfying film than Churchill, and Cox's performance in that film, while perhaps getting Churchill with more overall accuracy, suffers from the strange characterisation he's forced to enact, in which Montgomery's weaknesses are transferred to him. Oldman's ability as an actor is something that has gone overlooked by many for many years, because he's lacked the flashy roles, though not the convincing character parts (often as villains) such as in The Contender or Leon. But his Churchill is very much of a piece with his Beethoven or his George Smiley, both parts where he gets an essence of characters he would not commonly be thought his to play. That alone makes Darkest Hour worth viewing.

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