DARKEST HOUR: a stirring film, stirring controversy

Joe Wright’s take on Winston Churchill’s first days as Prime Minister, has, to use a military phrase, copped a lot of flak. It’s inaccurate, critics say, inventing scenes which didn’t occur, changing the way certain characters behaved, and portraying Churchill as less than the bulldoggish, determined and steadfast leader he really was.

This may well all be true. But does this make it a bad movie? The criticism of Darkest Hour raises the question posed by all films based on historical events. How should we treat them? Should you expect to watch something which is as historically accurate as can be, or should you suspend that thought, and treat it as a dramatic adaptation. An entertainment.

The answer must be the latter. If you want a document of record, then a book or documentary might be what you need, although of course there is no such thing as an objective account. No folks, this is a piece of drama. It’s an interpretation.

That’s easy to say but not easy to accept, and this may especially be so when dealing with an almost mythical figure like Winston Churchill. Emotions will surely run high if some see a portrayal that doesn’t accord with their view of the man.

And here, director Joe Wright, writer Anthony McCarten and actor Gary Oldman give us a tortured, at times uncertain Winston Churchill. He knows he is accused of military failings in the past, of being egotistical, bad tempered, a drinker, a man who puts his public duty before his family. And he is ambitious, as his family acknowledges when he finally is presented with the opportunity of leading the country. This is what he has always wanted.

And without spoiling the story, a bigger shock is in store, when we are given an account of the final hours leading up to the famous “We Shall Fight Them on the Beaches” speech. Here the story offers a surprising twist as to how Churchill reached his final resolve. It’s controversial, but it’s also a superbly gripping and emotional piece of cinema.

And make no mistake this is a gripping story, and it is indeed well acted. For my part Gary Oldman deserves the plaudits which have streamed his way. I found his performance absolutely captivating. He gives us a full depiction of his character, both the temper and the tenderness, the determination and the doubt, the humour and the bluster.

And when Oldman comes to that final speech, vowing never to surrender, it is spine tingling and truly stirring.

Oldman is more than well supported by the other actors. Much has been made of Kristin Scott Thomas as Churchill’s wife Clemmie –  and she is superb –  but I also found Ben Mendelsohn’s King George VI, and Stephen Dillane’s Viscount Halifax equally compelling. They have to be, as their characters are the dramatic foils to Churchill through the film.

Darkest Hour also presents a neat (and one assumes, unintended) companion piece to Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk of just a few months ago. That film dealt with the sweep of the Dunkirk beach and the scale of the disaster confronting hundreds of thousands of British soldiers trapped there. It was a cinematic tour de force, its drama mostly captured by its visuals and soundtrack, with little script.

Darkest Hour is also largely set during the events of Dunkirk, but its action is captured mostly in the dark halls and basements around Westminster. As many reviewers have pointed out, it is words, not bullets, which are the ammunition here. A significant amount of time in the film is spent with Churchill as he composes his speeches. On the face of it, that may not sound like great drama. But, set against the backdrop of tumultuous events, it is in fact drama of the highest order.

So put aside, if you can, concerns about historical accuracy. Enjoy a well crafted and constructed film, wonderfully brought to life by its actors. And should Oldman get an Oscar? Damn right.

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