Darkest Hour

 

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A second film portraying Churchill in wartime is curiously like its recent predecessor.

 
Darkest Hour

Kristin Scott Thomas and Gary Oldman

 

Last July when Dunkirk was screened, Christopher Nolan was rightly praised for the decision to incorporate Churchill's famous speech about the event not from the great man's own lips but as read out from a newspaper by a young soldier. In retrospect that choice seems ever more judicious for, since then, we have had two films about Churchill which evidence all too clearly how difficult it is to present him effectively on screen.

 

Although Jonathan Teplitzky's Churchill released last year concentrated on D-Day in 1944, this new piece directed by Joe Wright is in some respects more closely linked to Nolan's film than to its apparent rival movie. That's because the darkest hour portrayed here is the period in May 1940 leading up to the evacuation of our forces from the beaches of Dunkirk. Accordingly, the main stress is on Churchill's struggle as head of a coalition government to resist what he saw as appeasement: Chamberlain, the former prime minister, (Ronald Pickup) and Viscount Halifax (Stephen Dillane) were pressurising Churchill to seek terms for peace by negotiating with Hitler through Mussolini.

 

Despite this particular setting and emphasis, Churchill and Darkest Hour do indeed have much in common. Both seek to underline Churchill's doubts and weaknesses, while ultimately wanting him to be seen as the true hero of the day - a tactic that would work better if the real complexities of the man were not reduced to a simplistic, unconvincing level by the respective screenwriters. The quality of Churchill's rhetoric as a source of inspiration may be key in both works, but, as director of Darkest Hour, Joe Wright seems to have little confidence in the power of these speeches since he treats them as being in need of bolstering by Dario Marianelli's music score, in addition to which in some cases he intercuts outside images while a speech is in progress.

 

Understandably but cornily, both films seek to add female interest by giving scenes to one of Churchill's secretaries - here it is Lily James as Elizabeth Layton - while the actresses playing Churchill's wife are somewhat pushed to the sidelines (that is particularly the case here with the excellent Kristin Scott Thomas reduced to what is sadly little more than a cameo).

 

Whatever the failings of these two films (and I regard them as immense), one can only admire the efforts of their lead actors, Brian Cox in Churchill and Gary Oldman here. Oldman sinks himself into the part, yet it is impossible to be unaware of make-up when images of the real Churchill remain so familiar that any player essaying the role can't escape from giving what on one level is an impersonation. A competent supporting cast (not least Ronald Pickup) can only help so far when the writing and the tone fall so far short. For a long time Darkest Hour does at least improve on Churchill but then, as it approaches its climax, a key scene on the London Underground comes across as being so unbelievable that it can only be described as ludicrous.

 

It had seemed that the two Churchill biopics would vie with each other, but, when it comes to real conviction and a vivid experience as meaningful to young viewers as to their parents and grandparents, there is only one winner: Christopher Nolan's Dunkirk.

 

MANSEL STIMPSON

 

Cast: Gary Oldman, Kristin Scott Thomas, Lily James, Stephen Dillane, Ben Mendelsohn, Ronald Pickup, Samuel West, David Schofield, Benjamin Whitrow, David Bamber, David Strathairn (voice only), Richard Lumsden, Nicholas Jones, Jeremy Child, Hilton McRae, Joe Armstrong, Brian Pettifer, Pip Torrens, Ade Haastrup.

 

Dir Joe Wright, Pro Tim Bevan, Lisa Bruce, Eric Fellner, Anthony McCarten and Douglas Urbanski, Screenplay Anthony McCarten, Ph Bruno Delbonnel, Pro Des Sarah Greenwood, Ed Valerio Bonelli, Music Dario Marianelli, Costumes Jacqueline Durran.

 

Perfect World Pictures/Working Title Films-Universal Pictures International.
125 mins. UK. 2017. Rel: 12 January 2018. Cert. PG.