Sunday, 14 January 2018

Film Review - 'The Darkest Hour'

The Darkest Hour is already breaking box office records. Opening this weekend in the UK, it was my first experience of being in a completely full cinema.

Gary Oldman, a Shakespearean actor, who looks nothing like Winston Churchill in reality is almost his double in the film due to prosthetics, clothes, wigs and a mastery of some of his mouth and hand movements. He perfectly impersonates his voice, strengths, his weaknesses. Of course, he utters Churchill's own memorable, inimitable and sometimes obscene words.

Brian Cox played Churchill, in a lower budget film, Churchill (2017) with Miranda Richardson as Clementine, about the Normandy landings. It is a second episode to his film, but it is not as good. In this film, Kristin Scott Thomas is a sympathetic Clementine Churchill who was probably the most noble-looking Englishwoman of the 20th century. One wonders what modern actress could fully convey her aristocratic style, but Scott Thomas does a good job.  She offers an insight into how she raised Winston out of his regular bouts of depression, with confident, encouraging and loving words. Real life Clementine's gentle delivery in this short film supports this.

In The Darkest Hour, with a much bigger budget, Gary Oldman is more subtle and more moving than  any other Churchill that I can recall. Frankly, in a scene where he is consulting ordinary people, it is difficult not to drop a tear or two. After all, Winston did say, but not in this film, that the British people were 'the lion' and he just gave 'the roar'. In his speech to the US Senate in 1943, Churchill said that his father, Randolph, told him to consult and listen democratically to the British people (who they both felt were to be fully trusted) above all else.

The plot is tight and can be universalised to many individual situations, such as when one is championing an unpopular topic, Christianity or one faces very hard times of marginalisation, swimming fully against the tide of majority opinion, false belief, fashion or low credibility. It is still highly  relevant, in less dangerous political times. The musical score is very effective, replete with drum beats about danger and time fast running out and poignant strings describing feeling, fear and sadness.

In The Darkest Hour, Winston knows himself to be a man of conviction if sometimes poor judgement with hidden 'baggage' and a cluster of disabilities. He is shown as entirely alone, already unfit and growing old, in 1940. The daft German propaganda was that he was an 'old drunkard'. Against the slurs and unpopularity in his own party, he has to hold the line politically, while his weak and slippery Conservative colleagues ignominiously connive and then collapse, in the face of the reality of Hitler's character, ambition and tyranny.

The ‘enemy’ is clearly not just Hitler but a Conservative party filled with confused, wounded and contradictory appeasers, who verge, in retrospect, on complete lack of belief in their countrymen and border on cowardice, even treachery. The most confusing of them is Viscount Halifax, desperate for peace, even though he signed the misguided petition urging Lloyd George to give Germany the severest terms of peace, in 1919. In 1940, he wanted peace at any price, peace in our time but two wrongs cannot make a right. The lesson of this film and World War Two is that there are some things which cannot be compromised, even for imagined peace and ease, though neither was likely via surrender in 1940. These things are democracy and freedom. It is also worth knowing that Britain could not have proclaimed itself a neutral country, as the neutrality of Belgium had already been overrun by the Nazis. Winston finally roars at his contradictory if pious, Anglo Catholic colleague, Halifax: “You cannot reason with A TIGER when your head is in its MOUTH!”.  He then posts him, out of the way, to the Embassy in Washington, for five years.

On 15 May, five days after the Nazi invasion began through the Ardennes, French Prime Minister Reynaud contacted Churchill and famously remarked, "We have been defeated... we are beaten; we have lost the battle....” So the film starts with the resignation of Neville Chamberlain as Prime Minister and the appointment of Churchill, which Labour apparently achieved, having no faith in arch-appeaser, Lord Halifax. Due to Chamberlain’s and others’ refusal to re-arm during the 1930s, when the public did not want another war, the Army was weak. But appearances were deceptive. In fact, Hitler only had a semi-modern army with a veneer of terrifying Panzer forward divisions. Many of the German infantry were aged over 40, barely armed and untrained, conveyed into France in horse drawn carriages. Their single but critical strategic advantage was radio contact between tanks and brigades.

The film focuses on a number of political earthquakes, the first being the biggest shock of Winston Churchill’s entire life. This was being told by the French, having been outflanked on the Maginot Line, that they lacked a ‘Plan B’. Reynaud, the French PM met Churchill twice in May 1940 to give him the news and to tell him that France would sign a peace deal with Germany, which in fact, saved millions of French lives, but left poor old Britain to fight on, alone, unsupported by America but supported by faithful Australia, Canada, New Zealand and India.

At this stage, Churchill told Reynaud that he did not altogether rule out talks with Mussolini, who was not yet in the war. The latter took Italy into war on the side of the Hitler one month later. These few days in May 1940, while secretly, the Cabinet were weighing up peace or war was the War Cabinet Crisis and the film dramatises it in detail. Lord Halifax favoured what was euphemistically described as ‘The Reynaud Option’, approaching the Italians to see if acceptable peace terms could be negotiated by giving up some British territories. Halifax was eventually overruled by Churchill. But in the film, Winston first directly consults the British people, in an unorthodox manner, and he gains support from another, higher level. Whether either event actually happened is another matter. What did happen, which was not shown in the film, was that millions of people were praying, called by King George VI to do so, and, in my view, their prayers were answered in the miracle of Dunkirk evacuation which, as the film clearly shows, saved Churchill, politically. This film claims that the ‘little rescue boats’ in the evacuation were one of his better ideas.

The Darkest Hour is suitably shot mostly in the dark Cabinet war room bunker, or a mock up, as befits a period of unveiled evil, fear and gloom. There are some credible scenes shot at his home Chartwell, possibly even in his modest bedroom. The whole struggle puts into sensible perspective the internal Tory party divisions today, over Brexit.

The film is clearly a 'tour de force' that crosses the line from non-fiction into universal meaningfulness, and, by means of Churchill's own words, into the realms of actively energising those fighting alone for any ‘lost cause’. As Churchill says in the film, a lost cause is “the best kind”....

There is room for one more film on this topic. In my view, it should feature the Cabinet War Room, Winston waging war on weak politicians, self-sacrificial scenes relating to Dunkirk, the little boats, the religious mind of the King and the people praying and being filled with resolve. That would be the whole truth about ‘the darkest hour’. It could be called 'The Finest Hour'.

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