I try to avoid other people’s reviews before I watch a movie for fear of inadvertently nicking someone else’s ideas in my own write up. This one has been around for a few weeks though and I had heard that it had a great central performance but not a lot else. Consensus seemed to be that director Joe Wright’s version of history was a little far fetched, particularly in relation to a scene where Churchill gauges the public’s opinion on the war while taking a ride on the Tube.
Perhaps because I was looking for evidence of a director getting carried away I did initially think Darkest Hour was a tad too aware of itself. It does have more than a few cinematic affectations; jarring close ups, cliched steady cam shots and dramatic swings from the action on the right of the scene to the left. Wright does rather give the impression of a film school student desperate to impress with how he handles the lens. I have liked a couple of his previous pictures, Pride & Prejudice was good and Hanna is superb, but this style over substance approach is one of Wright’s traits. Through Pan and Atonement and especially Anna Karenina his direction has regularly distracted from the story.
Fortunately here the story is strong enough not to surrender to Wright’s ostentatious filmic onslaught. Other than the point at which Churchill is faced with his big historical decision and lets the train take the strain, it doesn’t take too many liberties with the truth of how Britain kept its liberty. Winston Churchill’s role in history isn’t exaggerated. He can be given credit for fighting on when others around him were ready to capitulate to Hitler and the movie shows that. At first he comes across as dangerously stubborn but by the end it demonstrates how this 66 year old was absolutely the right man in the right place at the right time. If Darkest Hour had failed to show this then the director would truly have something serious to answer for but Wright gets this right. The film also manages to make it clear quite what giving in would have cost and how close the country came to German occupation. If Lord Halifax, who was in favour of ‘peace’ talks, had taken the job of PM when it was offered then our nation’s current stress about how we fit into Europe would have been a luxury we would never have had to worry about. Wright pays reverence to Churchill without sugar coating things so frankly the occasional fancy camera angle can be forgiven. I’m not sure that Operation Dynamo was actually Churchill’s idea and his fateful little ride on the District Line from Embankment to Westminster is a stretch but it all works narratively. The Tube scene is an effective shortcut for showing how Churchill sought to honour the country’s will, or at least how he played on it – the result is the same.
In terms of Gary Oldman’s portrayal of the famous Prime Minister, yes of course he is great but no more than he ever is. Oldman always brings gravitas even if it’s in something like The Hitman’s Bodyguard or the new Robocop. It is hard to know how much like the real Churchill he is as our image of the man is informed by so many other actors’ performances. In just the last ten years alone Winnie has been played by Brendan Gleeson, Timothy Spall, Michael Gambon, Brian Cox, John Lithgow and Ian McNeice. Still, both he and the heavy make up job seem authentic and no doubt the prosthetics will help him win the Oscar just as it did for John Hurt, Nicole Kidman and Charlize Theron even though this year’s fellow nominees Daniel Kaluuya, Timothée Chalamet are as good if not better.
In the end the things I heard about the film were not quite accurate. The lead actor is good, the rest of the film is not bad but the real star is the grumpy, flawed, cigar smoking statesman who died in 1965. He is the reason to see the movie.
Is this one for the kids?
This is certainly one for the kids because it is an important history lesson. The film is rated PG and the most offensive thing is the amount Churchill smokes and his enthusiast cry of ‘up your bum’. The war itself was horrific but the people fighting it here were polite.
The Ripley Factor:
The idiom ‘behind every great man is a great woman’ was popularised in the 60s and 70s and called out by Annie Lennox and Aretha Franklin in the 80s but it originated in the 40s when this film is set. It applies nicely to Churchill as presented here because although this is his movie he is provided valuable support by Kristen Scott Thomas playing his wife Clemmie and Lily James playing the new Keira Knightley. It is a man’s story but women play their part.