I went to see Darkest Hour at Reading Film Theatre this week. I had expected it to be quite busy even before the Oscars, and so it was. Conveniently, it follows on more or less directly from my recent reading of Winston’s War, as Churchill takes up the office of Prime Minister, and covers the days and weeks of May 1940 leading up to the Dunkirk evacuation.
It’s not difficult to understand why Gary Oldman had reservations about taking the part; after all, it’s a well-trodden path and you have to feel there is something new to offer. I think he does. The storyline might be hagiographic, but the portrayal isn’t; Churchill is, to say the least, a heavy drinker, who keeps odd hours and, despite his personal convictions, is wracked by insecurity, yet, like an actor, when he takes to the stage, he delivers a fine speech. Disliked by most of his own party, by the opposition, and by the monarchy, he has to find ways to persuade them of his cause and course. The attempts by Chamberlain and Halifax to force him into negotiations beggar belief with the hindsight of history; but even in 1940, I wonder, how could they still believe, after all their previous negotiations with Hitler, that this would end any differently? Halifax, in particular, is portrayed here as a malevolent influence; Chamberlain is already a broken man, suffering from ill health, and perhaps recognising his own denial of events.
Did Churchill really sneak off to the Underground? Probably not, and that scene does require some suspension of belief. It’s a weak point where the film ceases to be historical and becomes entertainment, but not really convincingly so. It’s not altogether impossible, but it risks adding to the already overflowing mythology of someone who was undoubtedly in the right place at the right time, but otherwise would have been a minor irritation in the footnotes of history.
Oldman plays the lead role, but the quality runs deep throughout the cast, and I also felt there were strong performances from Kristin Scott Thomas (Clemmie Churchill) and Ronald Pickup (Neville Chamberlain), and Ben Mendelsohn provides an enigmatic portrayal of King George VI.