Churchill is an abidingly popular role with big-time actors once the receding hairline and expanding girth of middle-age set in. Sometimes the player is too evidently suited to the part - one thinks of Robert Hardy on telly in the Eighties - and the jowly gravitas gets clanked around as if Winnie wandered Chartwell and Westminster in never-was-so-much-owed mode 24/7. On the literal face of it, the man who brought both Sid Vicious and Commissioner Gordon to the silver screen is one of the least obvious cinematic Winstons ever, and he wears his lavish prosthetics with a very light touch. Gary Oldman's is stylistically both a nimbler and more shambolic Churchill - boozy and blustery and blubbery, immensely secure and oddly disconnected. It is a dazzling performance of the indispensable man of the century, intelligent and insightful, yet one that caused me, by the end, a grave unease.
Churchill tends to the Churchillian, which is to say the epic. Darkest Hour, by contrast, is very finely focused. Joe Wright, director, and Edward McCarten, writer, confine their two dark hours of screen time to a couple of critical weeks in May 1940, when Hitler's invasion of Norway precipitated Neville Chamberlain's retreat from Downing Street. Aside from some rather elaborately choreographed overhead shots and a lush grandiose score, Darkest Hour is filmed claustrophobically - in poky sitting rooms, Downing Street basements, attics, Westminster ante-rooms, and chilly lavatories; the lighting is crepuscular. The fate of the world is being determined, but we never glimpse the far horizons, only the dingy backrooms.
What happened that month was a showdown between the two principal contenders for the Prime Ministership, Mr Churchill and Lord Halifax. Stephen Dillane is excellent as Halifax, the vulpine cadaver looking down (in every sense) from the Commons gallery at Churchill's turns at the dispatch box. Unfortunately, aside from skillful deployments of his inscrutable yet condescending eyebrows, he gets somewhat short shrift on screen, so as a Churchill vs Halifax cage match it never quite comes off - presumably because the third Viscount Halifax is entirely unknown in Hollywood, and thus a tricky pitch. ("Third Viscount Halifax? Hey, let's see what the first two gross before we commit to that...")
This is a pity, because the two men were on opposite ends of the seesaw, and, capacious as Churchill's bottom is, most of the other players - the King, Chamberlain, the parliamentary party, defeatist generals, Dominion prime ministers around the globe - were inclined to park their own butts down Halifax's end. On May 10th, the day Winston became PM, the Germans invaded Belgium, France and the Netherlands. Ten days later, Hitler's army reached the Channel, and was within reach of throttling the 300,000-strong British Expeditionary Force at Dunkirk, and seizing the entire French fleet. In that dreadful month of May, Churchill wanted to fight on; Halifax preferred to use Mussolini's "good offices" to sue for a "peace" that would leave Britain and its empire more or less "intact" - save for East Africa, Suez, Malta, Gibraltar and sundry other places that would have to be addressed, per the Italian ambassador in London, "as part of a general European settlement".
In other words, we are at the great hinge moment of the twentieth century: Had Halifax prevailed, there would have been a neutered Berlin-friendly British Empire directly bordering America on the 49th parallel and all but directly the Soviet Union in Central Asia. There would have been no potential allies for Moscow in the event of war with Germany, thus incentivizing a successful conclusion in late 1940 to Molotov's talks in Berlin to join the Axis; and no allies whatsoever for Washington, assuming Japan still felt the need to bomb Pearl Harbor the following year. Instead, Churchill prevailed - and Britain and its lion cubs fought on, playing for time until first the Soviets and then the Americans joined the war against Germany, Italy and Japan. That year in which the moth-eaten Britiish lion and its distant cubs stood alone is, more than any other single factor, the reason why the world as ordered these last seventy years exists at all.
Joe Wright's film is very good on the sense of one small island on the periphery of Europe having the noose tightened almost hour by hour. The beleaguered Prime Minister puts in a telephone call to Washington to ask the American president if he might see his way to letting them have the P-40 fighter planes they've already paid for. FDR responds that he "just can't swing it" (a fine bit of period vernacular) but he'd be willing to fly them up to within a mile or so of the Canadian border and turn a blind eye if Winston were to send over teams of horses ("nothing motorized") to drag them across the frontier. As you might expect after that helpful suggestion, the conversation tails off: "Goodnight to you, Winston," says Franklin. "It must be late there..."
"In more ways than you could possibly know."
Darkest Hour is vivid and palpable on the darkness and lateness of the hour, but oddly muted as to the stakes. Day by day, Germany swallows the north-western Continental democracies, while across the Channel snooty Tories bitch about what a ghastly showboating "actor" Winston is. Most of us don't care about individual politicians, never mind their courtiers, except insofar as we have to live with the consequences of what they do - and the immediate consequences in May 1940 were as grave as any nation has ever faced. Wright's cast is awfully good: Ben Mendelsohn captures far better than Colin Firth the tentative weak-jawed visage of George VI, and Ronald Pickup conveys Chamberlain as a man of subtler calculation than posterity gives him credit for. But at times it's as weird as if everyone were obsessing about what Trump said to Bannon and Bannon said to McConnell while Kim Jong-Un were daily nuking South Korea, Japan and Australia.
Churchill was a master of words, and Edward McCarten's script is in the business of turning his bon mots into cinema. So we see him on his toilet shooing away an urgent call from the Lord Privy Seal on the grounds that he's "sealed in the privy". (Winston favors a silk dressing gown rather than a Harvey Weinstein bathrobe, but his habits of dictating from his bed and bathtub would be problematic in the #MeToo era. I wonder if you could even show this film on the Post-Bathrobe-Sexfiend PBS.) The popular wartime jest that all babies look like Churchill is illustrated by the PM's encounter with a newborn on the Tube.
Wait a minute - the Tube? Yes. The District Line, to be precise. As far as is known, Churchill only ventured on to the Underground once, during the General Strike of 1926. This is not merely because he was a toff, born at Blenheim Palace, the grandson of a duke: On one of my first visits to London, I rode the self-same District Line and found myself strap-hanging alongside Alec Douglas-Home, a former Prime Minister and a fourteenth earl, who got off at the same stop as Churchill does (Westminster, naturally). Later into the war, well settled into the premiership, Winston, in that famous boiler suit, would venture out to the East End to walk in the rubble left by the Luftwaffe. (Hitler, by contrast, never visited bombed-out areas of Berlin and, just in case the driver should take a wrong turn, he drove the streets with his car windows curtained - a very telling image.)
So, when Gary Oldman steps out of his chauffeured car en route to Number Ten and descends to the Tube, I don't mind the screenwriter's fancy per se. Nor do I object to the fairly obvious bit of affirmative action in his encountering among the passengers down there a young West Indian, "Marcus Peters": There were certainly black British subjects present in the mother country in 1940, as attested by beloved post-war celebrities of biracial parentage (Cleo Laine, Geoff Love, Shirley Bassey). No, what's disturbing is not the concoction but its purpose: It suggests that the new Prime Minister, wracked by doubts as to whether Halifax is right to pursue "peace" talks, is set straight by the doughty determination of the British people. This is the precise inversion of reality: In May 1940 Chamberlain remained the most popular politician in the country, and the citizenry, having watched the Nazi hordes consume a continent, was by no means eager to serve as the last line of resistance to what seemed an inevitable fate. The vox populi did not stiffen Churchill's resolve; he stiffened theirs.
One accepts a certain deference to the spirits of the age: Oldman's Winston is bucked up no end not only by his brisk and put-upon missus, whom the bone-china-brittle Kristin Scott Thomas manages to make even more of a period piece than the real Clemmie, but also by Miss Layton, his typist, played by Lily James. Indeed, one is mildly relieved not to be informed that the secretary wrote all the speeches. But, at its heart, the story of one long-serving politician in the spring of 1940 is the definitive example of the Great Man theory of history. It was his very particular qualities - ones that did not necessarily serve him well in peacetime or in other wars - that changed the course of human events.
Churchill is regarded, especially beyond the Commonwealth, as the apotheosis of Englishness, but in important ways he was most unEnglish. With Halifax working against him in the War Cabinet, the King's first minister takes his case to the full cabinet and tells them, "If this long island story of ours is to end at last, let it end only when each one of us lies choking in his own blood upon the ground." In his memoirs, Sir Winston claims the cabinet greeted him with a standing ovation; in his diary, a junior minister, Hugh Dalton, records baldly that the PM's line was "met with a murmur of approval round the table". Which sounds more like the reaction of a roomful of patrician Tories augmented by a couple of Labour stiffs like Clement Attlee?
To those who thought Churchill a mere "actor", the most unTory rhetoric was florid and ridiculous. But it had the size of the times. Halifax's position was the rational one - and the one Hitler undoubtedly expected to prevail, for the English are nothing if not rational, are they not? Yet all his life Churchill had had, to invert a more contemporary bit of phrase-making, the hope of audacity. Oldman's interpretation of some of the most familiar lines - including "we shall never surrender" - is gleeful and almost playful, and he makes you grasp why, as mad as it seemed, it resonated with the people. The improvised Dunkirk evacuation followed mere days later, and set the tone for the next five years: sure, these Germans are ruthless and efficient and cannot be beaten, but somehow against the odds we chaps muddle through and snatch victory from the jaws of defeat... There is myth-making in this, but Churchill was the man who made the myth, because he understood its potency.
As with Christopher Nolan's Dunkirk, one's admiration for the film is tempered by a terrible profound sadness - for a people who "won the war, and lost their country anyway": the "long island story" is ending, and without anyone feeling the need to lie choking on the ground over it. To anyone old enough to remember an England where one could "walk into any pub in the country and ask with perfect confidence if the major had been in", that sense of loss can bring tears to the eye. Unlike Iron-Man 5 and Spider-Man 12 and Cardboard-Man 19 and Franchise-Man 37, this is the film of an actual, real-life superhero: You leave the theater with the cheers of the House ringing in your ears ...and return to a world where quoting Churchill in his own land can get you arrested.
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