By midlandsmovies, Jan 13 2018 09:13AM
Darkest Hour (2018) Dir. Joe Wright
There are problems at the heart of Darkest Hour, a film about how Winston Churchill navigated his first days as prime minister in 1940, much as there were with man himself. Namely, how to weave a suspenseful tale out of a story where the ending is known; and also how to make a human character from a man that has become a legend. Joe Wright’s film mostly tackles these problems well but it loses its way at the worst possible moment.
The strength of the film is that it never loses sight of the fact that Churchill, and here in particular his political rivals, are flawed people bumping up against each other in close confines — often the miniscule cabinet war room — in a struggle where the stakes could not be higher. This is more political thriller than biopic.
Hitler’s military is sweeping all before it in western Europe, the entire British army is encircled at Dunkirk and Calais, meanwhile, in closer quarters Churchill’s predecessor, Neville Chamberlain, his foreign secretary, Lord Halifax, his parliamentary party and even the king are opposed to his premiership. He only has the job, the film tells us, because he is the only senior Tory who the opposition will accept as a leader.
Hanging over him is the military disaster at Gallipoli in the First World War, and a reputation for an intense self-regard — indeed, an acknowledgement from family and colleagues that he has always prioritised his personal political ambition.
So now that Churchill has his chance — or as he puts it at the start of the film, his rivals have their chance of revenge by putting him in the hot seat — how can he cling on to power among with so little support, and with Chamberlain and Halifax scheming to have this delusional warmonger removed from power altogether.
That this film was made at all, and the review is being written in English, perhaps gives the clearest indication of why Halifax and Chamberlain are the villains of the piece, but one of the film’s triumphs is to have these characters seem as reasonable in their aims as Churchill is steadfast in his.
The film swoops in and pulls away from the tight knit circle around Churchill to show the consequences of all that fighting in the war room and bitter-sweet family moments. In fact, it does this quite literally on a number of occasions as overhead camera shots launch skywards to dwarf either Churchill, a French boy, a stranded English brigadier each during pivotal moments in the story.
But this film is a political thriller at heart, and taught and compelling one at that. And it is the drama at close quarters that captivates the most.
The pressure mounting on Churchill, superbly portrayed by Gary Oldman, increasingly alone as his rivals pressure him to consider a negotiated peace with Hitler, is thrilling. As is his wrestling with an awful decision about how best to save the British Expeditionary Force in France.
But it is at Churchill’s own darkest hour, as he wrestles with what appears to be a bout of self doubt and his “black dog” of depression, that the film takes a nosedive. The only difference is the film’s own darkest hour seems born of hubris rather than lack of confidence.
From out of nowhere, King George V, previously a wet individual mulling over whether or not to bugger off to Canada and hoping his mate Halifax wins the prime ministership, appears from nowhere to give our hero a pep talk. It isn’t clear why but apparently he discovers his inner kingliness while standing about on the balcony one night at Buckingham Palace. Winnie and Georgie bond, and we can only be thankful the scene with a chest bump and a high five.
And so the toe curling begins in earnest.
A film this may be and it is right that it should not be a slave to historic detail. We are watching characters in a story, not real people. But what happens next is so out of character and so blatantly false that the tension falls slack immediately, like a sprinter pulling up with a dodgy hamstring. Unlike our protagonist, it never recovers and can only limp on.
Earlier in the film, when accepting the premiership from the king, Churchill tells a companion he has never taken a bus. But following the royal heart to heart, he leaves his chauffered car and takes the tube one stop between St. James’s Park and Westminster where he is to address parliament.
It is hard to know what the most unrealistic aspect of this scene is. That Churchill strikes up a conversation with a carriage full of Londoners? Or that it takes an inordinate amount of time for this train to travel a few hundred yards? Or is it that this aristocrat, direct descendent of the Dukes of Malbrough, born in Blenheim Palace in the age of empire is on the District Line at all? And that’s before we tackle into the excruciating dialogue.
Whichever it is, the overall effect is to rip the drama out of the film, all of the tension, and any sense of jeopardy. From here on in the whole thing becomes a victory parade, albeit done, as I said, with a limp. It does the story a disservice. Secure he may have been as leader having seen off Halifax, and with Chamberlain in terminal ill health, but he was still leader of a country all but on its knees in the face of overwhelming odds.
Darkest Hour is for the most part gripping and pacey, but just when it needed to step up a notch it pulls up short, only offering a lame attempt at a fist pump of an ending rather than what in real life must have been a far more intriguing story.
“Success is not final, failure is not fatal,” the film quotes Churchill as saying at the end. Both ideas apply to this film. The disappointing final furlong does not ruin the rest of it.
“… it is the courage to continue that counts,” ends that quotation. Whether audiences have the courage to persist with this film once it loses its way is a matter they will have to decide for themselves.