The Darkest Hour
Gary Oldman as Winston Churchill
Kristin Scott Thomas as Clementine Churchill
Ben Mendelsohn as George VI
Lily James as Elizabeth Layton
Ronald Pickup as Neville Chamberlain
Stephen Dillane as Edward Wood, 3rd Viscount Halifax
Nicholas Jones as John Simon, 1st Viscount Simon
Samuel West as Anthony Eden
David Schofield as Clement Attlee
Director: Joe Wright
Film reviewed by Robert Henderson
This is a deeply unsatisfactory film. It is very watchable but also blemished with ahistorical nonsense. In addition, although it gives a more positive picture overall of Churchill’s personality than does the other recent film portrayal of the man, there is still much which does not readily tally with what we know of Churchill from contemporary newsreel, his writings and the decisions that he made. It also intrudes into the film a piece of political correctness so crude and clumsy that it takes one’s breath away.
The film covers the period from just before Churchill’s appointment as Prime Minister in 1940 and the weeks immediately following his promotion to that office. Hitler is sweeping through Europe. Most of the British Army is trapped in Dunkirk and in danger of capture. Although better equipped militarily than in 1938, Britain is still short of planes and warships. For appeasing politicians like Halifax and the most senior military officers faced with this dire situation, there are persuasive reasons to seek terms with Hitler, not least because it looks as though most of the British Army will be lost at Dunkirk. Churchill, however, believes that a large scale evacuation of the army can be achieved and insists on overriding the doubters by mobilising not only the Royal Navy but any private ship (including some very small craft) to assist in the evacuation. He also orders a small British garrison under Brigadier Claude Nicholson in Calais to engage in what is effectively a suicide mission aimed at distracting the Germans from the evacuation from Dunkirk.
Amongst those who have their hands on the levers of power, Churchill is alone in unequivocally wanting to fight on and is the only one who is resolutely opposed to having any truck with Hitler. It is true that the film depicts Churchill at one point wavering over the idea of seeking terms with Hitler and Mussolini (there is no solid historical evidence for this) but whether this wavering was genuine or not, in the film Churchill, boosted by the success of the Dunkirk evacuation, soon changes his mind and returns to his belief that Britain must fight on because Hitler cannot be trusted.
Whatever the emotional drivers which led Churchill to be implacably opposed to making peace with Hitler, on purely rational grounds there were cast-iron reasons for taking such a stand. Hitler had already shown by 1940 that treaties and promises made in speeches meant nothing to him. He had begun by moving into the Rhineland in 1934 despite this being forbidden by the Treaty of Versailes in 1919. The Anschluss, which joined Germany and Austria, occurred in 1938 despite this being forbidden by the 1919 Treaty of Saint-Germain; the Munich Agreement of 1938 which restricted Germany to the Sudetenland was a dead letter after Hitler took possession of all of Czechoslovakia in 1939 and also in in 1939 Germany overturned the 10-year non-aggression pact between Germany and Poland signed in 1934 by invading Poland, an act which sounded the starting gun for WW2. All of that happened before Churchill became PM. In addition, in 1941, Germany broke the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact (signed in 1939) by invading Russia. The revisionist case that Britain should have stood aside and allowed Hitler free rein to attack Russia and thus retain both the Empire and global significance goes against all we know of Hitler’s mentality and actual behaviour. The best the UK could have hoped for was to be a vassal state of Nazi Germany and the worst would have been to be militarily occupied as Hitler broke whatever Vichy-style agreement he had made with the UK.
The jaw-droppingly clumsy piece of political correctness is a piece of pure fiction. It involves Churchill suddenly deciding to travel on the underground, something he had only done once before, during the 1926 general strike. He enters a crowded carriage where he is recognised and he begins canvassing opinion from his fellow passengers who are all white working class people (many verge dangerously close to being stage cockneys), the sole exception being a black West Indian. Everyone is gung-ho for fighting on.
After Churchill has finished canvassing opinion he begins to quote Macaulay’s poem Horatius (“Alone stood bold Horatius/ But constant still in mind/ Thrice thirty thousand foes before”).The West Indian takes up quoting the poem which he does flawlessly. It is not impossible but improbable that a black West Indian would have been on an underground train in 1940 and lottery win improbable that one would have been in a random carriage supposedly chosen by Churchill or that he would have been able to faultlessly quote Macaulay.
This falsification of reality comes from the same stable which routinely has blacks playing authority figures such as police chiefs, generals and judges in contemporary American cinema (other non-minority groups are rarely given accorded the same privileged status).
Does it matter that an historical drama plays fast and loose with the facts? It does because in any society, human beings need a narrative about the place they live in and how it got to be what it is. Cicero was right when he wrote that to be ignorant of what occurred before you were born is to remain always a child. And the thing about children is that they are very easily manipulated.
Following the fictitious underground scene, Churchill goes to the House of Commons and makes his “We shall fight them on the beaches” speech, a speech which is represented as growing from his putative experiences in the underground carriage.
On top of this, there is the unsatisfactory portrayal of Churchill’s general personality and habits. Oldman, with the aid of considerable make up has a half-way decent physical resemblance to Churchill and impersonates the voice well enough. Yet something is missing. Oldman’s Churchill is portrayed, as he is the film Churchill, as someone who is perpetually at war with other senior politicians and military men who frequently treat him as a ridiculous and dangerous adventurer at best and as contemptible at worst. Admittedly this is early in the war when Churchill had still to grow the reputation he had by 1945 and it is also true that many in his own party (the Tories) did not trust him, but it is difficult to believe that he would have been treated so cavalierly when he was not only PM but also leading the country at a most difficult time.
The other problem with this Churchill characterisation is that he is portrayed as being weak at various points and in various ways. Apart from the supposed wavering over seeking terms with Hitler and Mussolini, the film has him engaging in a transatlantic phone call with Roosevelt and is almost in tears whilst begging unsuccessfully for help. His wife reprimands him like a naughty boy. Yet if one looks at Churchill in newsreel and still photos of the period, he comes across as a much tougher personality than that which is portrayed and certainly not one given to panic. Moreover, his behaviour both as a soldier and war correspondent show him to have been physically brave. And his opposition to appeasing Hitler from an early stage, which alienated many in his party, showed he had moral courage.
On a more trivial level of misrepresentation, the film also depicts Churchill as more or less constantly inebriated and satisfying a monstrous cigar habit. Churchill did undoubtedly drink and smoke a great deal but it should be remembered that he lived to be 90 and carried the most colossal responsibility during five years as prime minister despite the fact that he was 65 when he was appointed Prime Minister May 1940 and 70 when the war ended in May 1945. Consequently, it is difficult to imagine him being so dependent on alcohol if not tobacco.
Oldman’s s role is so dominant that the rest of the cast are somewhat cast adrift. Kristin Scott Thomas as Clementine Churchill has the most substantial role after Oldman and being the fine actress that she is makes the most of what little there is. Stephen Dillane passes muster as Halifax, being waspishly aggressive; Ronald Pickup is a plausible Neville Chamberlain and Samuel West as Anthony Eden is through accident or design appropriately lightweight as a personality. Lily James as Churchill’s personal typist cum secretary Elizabeth Layton has a fair amount of screen time and was decorative but rather featureless. But in truth all of these other parts are too trivial to make much impression overall.
The surprise in terms of the substance of his role was Ben Mendelsohn as George VI. He has more screen time than one might imagine for a constitutional monarch, lending support and encouragement to Churchill. Curiously, Attlee is scarcely mentioned after the beginning of the film in which he makes a shrieking condemnation of Chamberlain utterly at odds with his known quietly ironical style.
There is one good thing to take from the film; the power of Churchill’s oratory. Churchill had a compelling and distinctive voice. Add in his literary talent and it still makes for a heady brew. I cannot in all conscience recommend The Darkest Hour but if you do see it bear in mind that it is predominantly fiction not fact.
Robert Henderson is QR’s film critic