Sunday, 28 January 2018

You need an open mind, but can enjoy a good couple of hours with Darkest Hour

Gary Oldman gives an outstanding performance as Churchill in Darkest Hour. He looks just enough like Churchill to make him believable. On the other hand, he looks absolutely nothing like Gary Oldman, which is remarkable.
Gary Oldman: captures Churchill and doesn’t look like himself at all
Darkest Hour is directed by Joe Wright and written by Anthony McCarten and they do a fine job of it. It focuses on the terrible first weeks after Churchill’s appointment as Prime Minister, when German troops invaded Belgium and the Netherlands, then France, and most of the British professional army ended up pinned to the Channel at Dunkirk.

Many political and military leaders believed the army lost, which would spell almost certain defeat. Even within Churchill’s own Conservative Party, key figures were calling for a negotiated settlement with Hitler. Not least were Neville Chamberlain, who had led the appeasement of Hitler in the 1930s, and his ally Halifax. A key early scene shows Chamberlain, forced to step down as Prime Minister after losing the confidence of Parliament, waiting with the King for Churchill to arrive to be appointed in his place.

GEORGE VI Why not Halifax? I favour Halifax.

CHAMBERLAIN I wanted Halifax. The Lords wanted Halifax. Halifax wanted Halifax.

GEORGE VI Then – then why have I been forced to send for Churchill?

CHAMBERLAIN Because he’s the only member of our party who has the support of the Opposition.

GEORGE VI His record is a litany of catastrophe. Gallipoli, 25,000 dead. The India Policy. Russian Civil War. The Gold Standard. The… the… the Abdication. And now this Norway ‘adventure’. What, eighteen hundred men?

CHAMBERLAIN One aircraft carrier, two cruisers, seven destroyers and a submarine.

GEORGE VI Winston lacks judgement.

CHAMBERLAIN He was right about Hitler.

GEORGE VI Even a stopped clock is right twice a day

One, and by no means the least reason for quoting that passage, is the last line. The film is peppered with wit and that alone makes it worth watching. Indeed, the script makes excellent use of words, as is only appropriate, given that it is about words – even including a judgement by Chamberlain near the end that, with his “we shall never surrender” speech, Churchill has mobilised the English language and sent it into battle.

The extract also underlines the widespread distrust of Churchill. It wasn’t just Gallipoli, an initiative that many historians might have succeeded had it been conducted with greater speed and secrecy, but turned out a massive failure. It was, as the King suggests a string of fiascos that tarnished his reputation.

The distrust wasn’t just about his perceived incompetence. If Chamberlain and Halifax favoured opening peace discussions with Hitler, they had little time for Churchill’s determination to keep fighting by whatever means possible. They receive in stony silence his first speech as Prime Minister to Parliament, where he declares that:

I have nothing to offer but blood, toil, tears, and sweat

and makes clear his intention is to keep fighting to final victory.

These were not sentiments that would endear him to those who were looking for a negotiated peace. Most of the film’s action concentrates on the conflict between those people and Churchill and his followers – though, to be honest, only one follower, Anthony Eden, makes more than a cameo appearance and even he seems sceptical at the depths of the crisis. Nor do we see anything like enough of Attlee, who staunchly backed Churchill in reality.

Indeed, Joe Wright gives him only a minor role, and has Churchill make only two comments about him, both derogatory. The well-known “sheep in sheep’s clothing” taunt is one. The other when Churchill is in the toilet and is told the Privy Seal (Attlee) has come to see him.

Tell the Lord Privy Seal - tell him I’m sealed in the Privy - and I can only deal with one shit at a time!

I couldn’t help laughing at a clever line, but it’s part of the films failure to show that Churchill, for all his banter, had a high opinion of Attlee. I know that because I recently finished John Bew’s masterful biography of Attlee, Citizen Clem. It describes, for instance, how Less than a month before the period of the film, Attlee made a speech declaring there could be no negotiation with Hitler, who simply had to be rounded up.

There are hints, of course, about Attlee’s significance, not least in the conversation between Chamberlain and the King I quoted before. Chamberlain declares that Churchill was the only candidate the Opposition would accept. It’s a point Bew makes forcefully: it was Attlee, as leader of the Opposition who made it possible for Churchill to become Prime Minister at all. But Wright doesn’t go anything like far enough. Although Attlee sat in the War Cabinet, Darkest Hour has him intervene only once, and only to exclaim that sending the small British garrison at Calais to try to divert the German advance on Dunkirk, was “suicide”.

Again, Bew makes clear that Attlee was a far more determined warrior than that would suggest. He took responsibility for collecting chemical weapons for the war effort, for instance, and made it clear after the war that had it come to the point where they had to be used, he would not have hesitated. We might not like that stance, today, but it certainly shows that Attlee was no less resolute than Churchill was. It’s a shame that the film suggests that he wasn’t.

Indeed, it’s unfortunate that the film seems intent on portraying Churchill as alone in backing the harder course. He had far more support than that implies. But perhaps Wright felt that the drama would be enhanced by showing him as a lone clarion voice for what was right – my regret is that historical accuracy was sacrificed for it.

Still, the film is wonderfully entertaining and often insightful. Kristin Scott Thomas was excellent as Clementine Churchill, caring for her husband and encouraging him, giving him the strength for the fight. I was also delighted to see that Admiral Ramsay appeared in the film – he’s long been a hero of mine, the man who came back from retirement to organise the Dunkirk evacuation of the bulk of the British Army, and then turned into one of the war’s greatest experts in logistics, with the D-day landings in Normandy as his greatest challenge and achievement.

There are flaws, though, apart from the treatment of Attlee and the depiction of Churchill as a lone hero. There are mawkish moments: George VI becoming a convert and coming around to steel the Prime Minister for the fight ahead; a tear-jerking moment when Churchill takes a tube ride and uses the opportunity to conduct an informal focus group among his (working and lower middle class) fellow passengers, which teaches him that the people think like he does. Apart from the corniness of an event that I’m sure never happened, if you know London at all well, you know no such conversation could take place in a single-stop journey to Westminster.

But these are just minor criticisms. As long as you go in with a mind forearmed against some historical distortions, you can enjoy Darkest Hour as a film that eloquently reveals a great deal about a crucial time. And which provides a great evening’s entertainment.

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