Darkest Hour (UK-US 2017)

Winston Churchill (Gary Oldman) is summoned by King George VI (Ben Mendelsohn) to be appointed Prime Minister

Why did I go to see Darkest Hour? I’m not sure, but I should make clear that I have resisted the fetishisation of Winston Churchill for at least fifty years. Possibly it was because I have time for Joe Wright’s approach to historical subjects and I was interested in seeing how his take on May 1940 differed from Christopher Nolan’s in Dunkirk (and indeed, Wright’s own take in Atonement). I’m not really interested in the Oscar nominations this week in which Darkest Hour features in several categories.

Two immediate responses: Darkest Hour is an anti-realist film full of Wright’s theatrical ideas (i.e. about staging the drama) and no matter how repugnant the politics, skilled direction can still invoke emotional responses. I found myself weeping at scenes, even though I rejected the ideological force of the arguments from a man I despise apart from two aspects of his long career – his mastery of the English language (as commented on in the narrative) and his peculiar ability to manage the moment of crisis in 1940. I’m old enough to remember Churchill’s funeral 53 years ago when we were given time off school to watch the state funeral. I knew even as a teenager that he had not always been a heroic figure. It was only later that I learned about his racism, rabid anti-communism, attacks on working people and complete disregard for the victims of imperial aggression.

Churchill on the tube in the film’s most controversial invention

The film’s script by Anthony McCarten is actually quite even-handed in the sense that it mentions Churchill’s previous failures (although this seems to be a strategy to ‘humanise’ the character and to demonstrate how he was able to put his failures behind him). The film interests itself in the drama of the moment and indulges itself in Gary Oldman’s playing. So many critics have picked out the sequence in which Churchill takes an Underground trip to meet ‘the British people’. Yes, it’s ridiculous, but it’s only one of the anti-realist scenes/sequences in the film. Ditto, the night-time meeting with the king. The simple point is – don’t look to Darkest Hour for historical analysis. Simply enjoy the dramaturgy. I know that the film has done well in North America and for overseas audiences I should just point out that ‘tube’ trains, like the one shown in the film, didn’t get anywhere near Westminster in 1940 – only District and Circle Line trains which were larger and less cramped as they ran on the ‘cut and cover’ tracks just below street level. The filmmakers must have known this, so it was a deliberate decision to use the confined space of the tube for the scene in which Churchill canvasses public opinion immediately before speaking in the House of Commons. The time between station stops would also be much shorter than the time taken for the discussions with ‘ordinary people’ on the tube. The real provocation is Churchill’s warm appreciation of the contribution of a young West Indian man in the carriage. (The character himself is believable, but it’s a stretch to imagine Churchill being so appreciative.)

One of the expressionist shots depicts the fate of British soldiers in Calais, trapped in a tower and ‘sacrificed’ by Churchill to gain time for the Dunkirk evacuation. This sequence is reminiscent of ATONEMENT.

The film has been tagged as pro-Brexit propaganda in various quarters – a kind of Daily Mail tribute to ‘Little England’. I don’t think that is justified. I note that it is photographed by a Frenchman and scored by an Italian. The narrative shows the French leaders thinking that Churchill is ‘delusional’ – which doesn’t seem too outlandish as an analysis of attitudes at the time. Most of the films criticised in this way were already in production before the Brexit referendum.

What is more interesting is to consider why so many films set in this period have emerged over the last few years, not just in the UK but across Europe. Partly it’s because we are now reaching the point where even the young people who experienced the 1939-45 war are coming to the end of their lives and there is a struggle over representations of the period for the generations who only know the war through secondary sources. But why the fascination with Churchill? I think that, whatever we may think of him, he represents a ‘conviction’ politician (contrasted in the film with Viscount Halifax, the vampiric, cold Foreign Secretary, well played by Stephen Dillane) and there aren’t many of those around anymore. We were spoiled in the 1960s-1980s to have the benefit of politicians in the UK who had themselves fought in the war – or at least experienced it and understood what it meant. The sorry lot we have now, especially the Tories, push us into looking back. The other question is why the film is succeeding in overseas markets. Box Office Mojo suggests it has taken over $5 million in China, $3.5 million in France and over $1 million in several other territories such as Brazil, Spain, Italy and Switzerland. Only some of these countries are interested in Brexit, so audiences must be attracted by something else.

Churchill takes his secretary Elizabeth Layton (Lily James) into the War Cabinet room to show her the situation in France. (photo Jack English, © 2017 FOCUS FEATURES)

Darkest Hour is a Focus Features-Working Title film. Working Title’s Tim Bevan and Eric Fellner represent the most successful producing partnership in the UK film industry, sustained since the 1980s. Since the 1990s, Working Title has had a relationship with Universal. Darkest Hour is a co-production with Perfect World Pictures, a Chinese partner for Universal and this perhaps explains the Chinese box office. The same production partners also combined on the rather less successful The Snowman in 2017. Gary Oldman certainly gives a bravura performance. Lily James is also very good as Churchill’s new secretary/typist, playing a crucial role in the narrative which enables the audience to get closer to Churchill as a man rather than a ‘politician’. The performances generally are very good. I can’t resist comparing the film as a production with The King’s Speech (2010), a film I didn’t like much which was extremely successful despite some strange performances. Darkest Hour is in my view a more coherent and aesthetically interesting film which uses atmospheric and expressionist images as well as authentic period detail – though its liberties with historical fact are probably more disturbing. Darkest Hour didn’t offend me as much as Nolan’s Dunkirk but it did make the final mistake of implying that all the Dunkirk evacuations were carried out by Churchill’s flotilla of little boats. I guess the other point to make is that the film opens with Clem Attlee destroying Chamberlain in the House and forcing his resignation. Despite the fact that Churchill then leads a ‘National Coalition’ with Attlee in the Cabinet, we never hear from Clem again. A few years ago I did see a savage and very interesting documentary reconstruction on BBC2 about what happened to Churchill in the last few months of the war and during the election won by Labour in July 1945. Churchill: When Britain Said No, (2015) is not on iPlayer and has not been repeated as far as I know. You can watch it for a small fee on YouTube or search for it online and it makes an interesting companion piece to Darkest Hour.


  1. keith1942

    An interesting review though I am not sure if ‘anti-realist’ is an accurate label. I agree that the film does not attempt ‘British realism’.
    I share Roy’s view of Churchill. And I did not weep during the film. Partly this is because the film struck me as a series of set-pieces rather than a developed narrative. But more because of the ludicrous attempts to fashion a character sympathetic in the C21st. The sequence in the underground is anachronistic. More importantly it is a reactionary device: an attempt to make the war at this point ‘a people’s war’, another of those British myths.
    And what happened to Atlee at the war cabinets? And where was Arthur Greenwood, also a member?
    The film portrays these event as a single-handed struggle by Churchill: dubious? And did he actually come up with the idea of the small boat flotilla for Dunkirk?

    • Roy Stafford

      OK. I should have been clearer about ‘anti-realist’. I didn’t intend to refer to the 1970s ideas about ‘counter cinema’. Instead, I simply wanted a shorthand way of referring to Joe Wright’s penchant for theatrical staging techniques and their overall impact. The ideology of ‘the People’s War’ is important, but would require a much longer piece to explore. At some later point I think it would be interesting to look at this film alongside Nolan’s Dunkirk, Their Finest and possibly the other Churchill film by Jonathan Teplitzky (which I haven’t seen and which deals with a later period of the war, I think) and compare their different aesthetic approaches. A different study might try to theorise why the quartet should appear so closely together.

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