David G. Hughes on Joe Wright’s ‘Darkest Hour’ (2017)
TO WHAT EXTENT CAN AN AWFUL man do great things? Or, to what extent can one right call absolve the sins of all former bad ones? These may or may not be the questions that ‘Darkest Hour’ is attempting to pose, but they are nonetheless the prescient ones that sustain once the credits roll. Prior to purchasing a ticket to the latest of a seemingly never-ending parade of on-screen Churchill portrayals, my friend advised me that such an action was tantamount to celebrating its central figure, a financial endorsement of a myth that glamorises a bumbling, chauvinistic, aristocratic drunkard who advocated eugenics, was responsible for countless military disasters and, as even acknowledged by Alexander Boris de Pfeffel Johnson, a man who has fashioned a political career on bumbling aristocratic “eccentricity”, Churchill was little more than an opportunist with high hopes of high office. But to what extent is portrayal tantamount to endorsement? The last film I remember watching about a World War II leader in an underground bunker was the fascinating drama, Downfall (2004), which portrays the last few days of Hitler’s war effort but could hardly be said to condone its central protagonist. I resolved this moral conundrum with a claim to no predilection: one has to see the film before critiquing it. I am thus now qualified to say that, while a few holes are punctured in the seemingly indissoluble Churchill myth that give this much-told national tale some breathing air for fresh dramatic tension, there is little doubt whose side this film is on.
Rather than embrace the delicate realism witnessed in ‘Downfall’, the clue to allegiance in this contrived and histrionic film rests in the music. Unable to keep its musical pants on whenever history comes to moments of quintessential Churchillian vivacity, the score swells in rhapsodic adoration, and the camera swoons and tracks into the face of greatness. Director Joe Wright is overzealous in his desire to prove the film is something beyond what we have already seen in matinee TV productions. It is, by all too-clear design, a great Oscar contender. At the level of performance, victory is assured in the battlefield of award campaigning, a win for an actor wholly deserving but mostly for other performances. Not to say that Gary Oldman’s turn as Churchill is bad; far from it. It is quite an accomplishment for a working-class actor who shares zero physical resemblance to the Blenheim aristocrat to play the role with such verisimilitude, detail, humanity and panache. But, rather than the merit of performance, it is the plundering of British history and marketable ‘against-the-odds’ narratives that our American friends love; one is reminded of a scene when Churchill, sat on the bog quite literally shitting his pants about the incoming invasion, rings the American President and, in his most supine moment of desperation, begs for “50 destroyers. 40 will do!”
As ‘against-the-odds’ narratives go, the British stance against Nazism is perhaps the quintessential one. Beyond the national, at the level of human drama Darkest Hour goes to great length to construct Churchill as the underdog, isolated by his party, disliked by his King and unsure of himself. Not in the chest-thumping grandiloquence of rousing speeches, it are quiet reflections of mental and physical isolation when the film cuts through and we can actually feel human struggle. At least for the sake of drama, debates and protests are had in the film about Churchill’s alcoholism, his ego, his warmongering, and his callous decision making. This makes for a welcome, albeit limited, continuation of the deconstructive work John Lithgow started as Churchill in Netflix’s The Crown, an American actor unafraid to depict Churchill’s murderous negligence. Darkest Hour is not so bold. All the dramatic tension aroused in the shouting matches and beautifully lit war-rooms of London is resolved in an absurd and preposterous scene in which Winston, torn between his ego that tells him ‘no surrender’ and his duty as Prime Minister to negotiate peace, decides to ask the people. Venturing without guidance into the depths of London’s underground to get chummy with the same common folk whose labour movements he so violently despised and crushed, Churchill manages to secure the democratic mandate of the District Line to wage war at the next Westminster stop. This deus ex machina is egregious not only in its narrative ineptitude, cheapness, tactical evade and complete artifice (needless to say this Brexit fantasy of direct democracy never happened), but is also rather offensive.
Churchill’s saving grace was his belief in the incompatibility of co-existence with Fascists. This is a story about resolve in that belief, and it is a timely message indeed. Gratefully so, Darkest Hour refuses to make this a party political point. Challenging the perception that Churchill emerged from some Cometh-the-Hour fog as the embodiment of Toryism or anti-fascism, it was in fact the British Labour Party, always ill at ease with Fascism at a point of principle, that had the foresight to force the Tory Party into a hardline anti-Nazi position, thrusting Churchill upon them as the Coalition leader. Considering all that Churchill represents, the irony is delicious. Yet the fact that we are not watching a Clement Attlee biopic is surely an indication that cinema will always be fond of the cigar-chomping and larger-than-life. Darkest Hour is more thriller and less drama, leaving the feeling of truth as the first casualty of war.