When a film contains a number of excellent performances and takes such care in re-creating period detail and prevailing moods, it may seem churlish to focus on one fatally flawed scene. Unfortunately despite the undoubted excellence of Gary Oldman in the role of Winston Churchill in DARKEST HOUR (125 minutes), an unnecessary and scarcely believable twist of the plot toward the end of the piece mars what is otherwise a creditable piece of film making.
Where the film succeeds is bringing to life the calamitous series of events that brought Great Britain to the brink of being invaded by German forces in the summer of 1940, the Nazis having already overrun the Low Countries and side-swiped through France to leave what remained of the British and French Armies encircled at Dunkirk.
As the situation becomes increasingly desperate serious divisions appear at the heart of the British Government, a Conservative administration led by Neville Chamberlain, who like several in his party is interested in exploring a negotiated peace with Hitler to prevent Britain going the same way as Holland, Belgium and at any moment, France. Under pressure from Labour opposition leader Clement Atlee, Chamberlain and Lord Halifax (played superbly by Stephen Dillane) who is also keen on appeasement, both resign their Cabinet posts in order for a Wartime Coalition to be formed. The only Conservative politician senior Labour figures will serve under in a War Cabinet is Churchill – who at that time is in a political cul-de-sac after some misguided decisions earlier in his parliamentary career, but who throughout the Thirties has made several speeches highlighting the escalating re-armament of the German Army.
Enter Churchill, brilliantly portrayed by Oldman, the man fate has conspired will lead the country in its struggle for survival. As Prime Minister he refuses to countenance any question entering into negotiations with the enemy, either directly or indirectly, much to the chagrin of Chamberlain and Halifax, who has been approached by the Italian Foreign Minister with an offer to mediate between the ascendant Germans and beleaguered Britain, the King also expressing misgivings about Churchill’s belief in fighting to the finish being preferable to a cowered peace.
Throughout Oldman receives stellar support from Kristin Scott Thomas as Clementine Churchill his redoubtable, long-suffering wife, Samuel West plays Anthony Eden (Churchill’s closest political ally) with great aplomb and Lily James as his timid but ever loyal private secretary gives a fine, understated performance. The film also takes no issue with the notion that as Prime Minister it was Churchill who rallied the British people in their darkest hour, but neither does it shy away from his prodigious appetite for whisky, a vehement bad temper and insistence every memorandum and each directive issued is carried out to the letter.
However as Darkest Hour builds to a climax it slides from accomplished historical drama to trite melodrama in a scene so contrived you wonder what possessed director Joe Wright, who otherwise does a decent job, to include it. Early on we learn Churchill has only once in his life used the London Underground. Stuck in traffic while heading to the House of Commons, he leaves the car unchaperoned and enters the nearest tube station where follows a predictable senior moment gag when he cannot work out his route, a young girl coming to his aid. When Churchill is recognised on the train the other passengers whisper their surprise at seeing the Prime Minister using public transport, with the scene an obvious plot device to emphasise the public backed his stance of fighting on no matter what, confirmed when he engages them in conversation. But things become even mawkish when one of his fellow commuters turns out to be a West Indian gentleman who is accompanying a white woman, an unlikely occurrence in 1940 and smacking of obvious tokenism. Much more credible would have been a scene where Churchill meets Press Barons (most of them Lords and more in keeping with the company Churchill preferred) who could have told him what their readerships thought of his steadfast approach to the war. The underground train scene becomes even less realistic when considering his uneasy relationship (and vice-versa) with the British Working Class. Great War leader he may have been but in July 1945, less than three months after the conflict in Europe ended, Churchill was out of office with Labour elected in a landslide.
There is no doubt Gary Oldman deserves to be well in with an Oscar shout for his superb work in depicting Churchill and Darkest Hour, despite a ten minute aberration, is worth seeing on that basis alone.
NEIL SAMBROOK is the author of MONTY’S DOUBLE – an outstanding new thriller now available as an Amazon Kindle Book.