Review by DAVID SOUTHWELL
Book | Darkest Hour | PG
Darkest Hour appears predestined to deliver a gold Oscar to leading man Gary Oldman. But for audiences the reward is a gripping and rousing portrayal of a pivotal moment in modern history, even if the film’s pivotal moment is potentially polarising.
Oldman, largely unrecognisable under jowly prosthetics, plays Winston Churchill in the period following his sudden elevation to British prime minister in 1940. A rampant German army is overruning Western Europe and British troops are being cornered at Dunkirk.
First seen from the perspective of new secretary Elizabeth Layton (Lily James), Oldman’s Churchill is by turns impossible, irascible, avuncular and even a little doddering.
He is indulged, but occasionally chastened, by his endlessly bemused and devoted wife Clementine, played in wonderfully wistful manner by Kristin Scott Thomas.
We are served up something of an edited highlights and remix of Churchill or Churchill-related witticisms and epigrams. This includes observations of his idiosyncratic and impecunious aristocratic lifestyle fuelled by Herculean consumption of food, drink and cigars.
Churchill’s ascension occurs at the expense of Neville Chamberlain (Ronald Pickup), whose unwillingness and unpreparedness to counter Nazi aggression has lost him the confidence of the Labour party, which partners the Conservatives in wartime coalition government.
Chamberlain, however, still wields decisive clout within the Tories. He allies with Churchill’s main adversary Lord Hallifax (Stephen Dillane) to manoeuvre the bellicose new prime minister into a position where he must consider a negotiated peace.
However, Churchill’s policy is simply and solely to fight until victory.
The action over the next few desperate days is mainly set in the claustrophobic underground labyrinth of tunnels and operation rooms surrounding the war cabinet room.
This physical constriction mirrors the unrelenting sense of a noose tightening as things go from bad to worse in Europe and the prospect of invasion looms.
In one particularly memorable scene a solitary Churchill rides in a small lit elevator surrounded by subterranean darkness after a particularly dispiriting conversation with the chummy but cheerfully unhelpful American president Franklin D Roosevelt.
Under pressure from Hallifax and Chamberlain, Churchill begins to waver. The film suggests he was seriously undecided, which is historically questionable to say the least even if some tentative steps towards peace talks were made.
After a bracing chat with the King George VI (a superb Ben Mendelsohn) Churchill suddenly absconds from his chauffeured Rolls Royce on the way to Parliament and makes an impromptu plebian descent into the subway to catch a train.
His fellow passengers are ‘ordinary’ Londoners. The interactions with a poetry-quoting West Indian and a young child inspire the Prime Minister’s resolve to keep fighting.
This is undoubtedly a crowd-pleasing cinematic moment. Unfortunately it is so improbable that it took me straight out of the film and broke its spell.
Even allowing for some poetic licence, the film had to that point reflected the real historical situation and dilemma, which in its world-shaking and shaping implications had ample drama without resorting to transparent invention.
The clear intent is to show that the British people strengthened Churchill’s will to keep fighting, rather than the other way around, as ‘the great man’ theory of history conventionally asserts.
However well-meaning that might be in attempting to demonstrate the power of ordinary people to shape the ‘right outcomes’ of history (spoiler alert: Britain was eventually on the winning side) the scenario’s obvious contrivance undermined that message.
Fortunately this fantastical Tube ride does not entirely derail the film, which otherwise is an immersive drama of the highest historical stakes imaginable.