Two of My Darkest Hours
Darkest Hour (2017)
Universal (Working Title) (117 mins.)
Directed by Joe Wright
Screenplay by Anthony McCarten.
Starring Gary Oldman.
Yet another war film, yet another Churchill bio-pic, yet another movie disaster. I had few expectations of this film but when I finally got to see it (on the BBC) any slender shards of it were soon smashed to smithereens.
This is the Hollywoodisation of history at its most dire. Oldman’s portrayal of Churchill is very good, courtesy of some very heavy and quite convincing make-up, though his vocal register and accent wobble a bit, and his performance tends towards impression and caricature rather than true inhabitation. The trick of playing him as dim and slow-witted as a device to suggest the opposite is scarcely original and has reached the point of becoming wearisomely predictable (see just about every other portrayal of him). The depiction of London in 1940 is very good, and some slow-motion photography of street scenes at a couple of points in the film is highly effective in creating atmosphere. I only wish the same could have been said of the rest of the enterprise. Churchill’s uneasy and turbulent relationship with his wife Clemmie is nicely teased out, thanks chiefly to an excellent performance by Kristin Scott Thomas (perhaps the best of the largish supporting cast) and the scenes in the Cabinet war rooms are quite well realised. The acting and direction is generally good, save for the amateurish re-creation of the Dunkirk flotilla (Operation Dynamo) seemingly taking place in a bathtub.
However, the problem is the script which is historically inaccurate, politically half-baked, and oozes clichés from every pore. Of course I do not expect absolute and tedious fidelity to the historical record, and artistic licence is not merely excusable but more or less a necessity if one is to have a properly rounded drama and to reach any sort of satisfactory conclusion. And one would have to be spectacularly naive to suppose that the cinema is going to deliver any such thing as a strictly factual account. Clearly also the great bulk of the dialogue has to be invented since there is no official record of private conversations, and even where unofficial ones exist in diaries and memoirs they tend to vary according to the prejudices of the players concerned. But Darkest Hour takes 101 liberties too many. Whilst the first half of the film is tolerably adjacent to reality the second spirals off into fantasy land, its absurdities almost a betrayal of the rather laboured efforts at authenticity built up in the first. To go through all the outrages at some length is arduous but I will nonetheless attempt it.
We begin with the Norway debate in the House of Commons in early May of 1940 which sees the PM, Neville Chamberlain (Ronald Pickup looking very much the part) and his Conservative government under heavy pressure from the Labour Opposition led by Clement Attlee (whose name is misspelt in the credits). Attlee is here portrayed as an oratorical thunderer, denouncing Chamberlain in the most emphatic terms and demanding his resignation, quite unlike the placid figure we all know and love to be bored stiff by. (In breach of Parliamentary etiquette, perhaps an excusable error on the part of the film-makers, he refers to Chamberlain by name not by prime ministerial title or as “the right honourable gentleman”). Thereafter, however, this titan of the dispatch box disappears altogether from the film, despite being called into the War Cabinet as part of the Churchill coalition. In fact the real ammunition in the debate was supplied by Tory backbencher Leo Amery (in the name of God GO!) and former Liberal PM and hero of WWI Lloyd George, and Labour was led in the debate by Arthur (Speak for England Arthur!) Greenwood not Attlee. But they do not appear. I suppose you can’t really clutter the film with too many characters, many of whom will have only a walk-on part, and there is only so much you can cram into two hours.
Churchill is shown, or rather not shown, his place on the front bench vacant save for a hat (the film-makers seem to think that ministers have fixed places on the front bench) and we have a sardonic comment from an MP that Winston “does not want to leave his fingerprints on the murder weapon”, one of the better lines in the script. It does, however, create the impression that Churchill had in some way failed to support the government when in fact, as a member of the Cabinet since the declaration of war the previous September, he would have had to support the government, both by his presence in the division lobby and on the front bench beside his colleagues. And we are treated once again, as with so many representation of the Commons, to the sight of almost literally every single MP on both sides of the House cheering (or jeering) wildly and waving his order paper, as if it were some sort of musical production number. Has the director never actually watched the House of Commons?
We then proceed to a dinner party that evening attended by party grandees, though not I assume the full Cabinet because Churchill is absent despite being a very senior member of it as First Lord of the Admiralty. Chamberlain addresses the need to resign and the question of the succession; cue for an orgy of lumbering expositional dialogue from all and sundry, as they plump for the foreign secretary, Lord Halifax (Stephen Dillane); “Must be Halifax”; “No Contest”; as sole acceptable candidate, and when he duly declines, “But then who?” they all cry. “Oh, no, no, no!”
The whole scene is an absurdity because it was already widely accepted within the highest circles that the choice lay between Halifax and Churchill, and that the former was an impossibility from a practical viewpoint given that he was in the Lords. In fact the decision was to be made the following day in a meeting between Chamberlain, Halifax and Churchill, a scene not depicted here. It is also suggested that only Churchill among Tory MPs would have been acceptable to the Labour Party, though Labour merely demanded that Chamberlain resign without expressing any preference for a particular successor, and their eventual willingness to serve under Churchill in a grand coalition was distinctly grudging and half-hearted.
We proceed to Chartwell the following day and in a self-consciously bright and cheery domestic scene, designed to contrast sharply with the hugger-muggery of the preceding, Churchill’s breakfast is being prepared and we see the work of the household and the induction of a new typist. The servants are all loveably eccentric plebs of course, and I almost expected to see Mr Hudson and Mrs Bridges pop up or should I say Mr Carson and Mrs Patmore. Breakfast is taken up to the great man’s bedroom, followed by the fledgling typist. As with all the best heroes we are only introduced to him in circuitous fashion, shrouded in mystery, the better to leave us guessing as to his credentials (think John Wayne in Stagecoach or James Bond at the gambling table in Dr No). The typist, Miss Layton (Lily James), duly enters the darkened and smoke-filled den to be greeted by Churchill already in full flow of dictation and expecting the poor girl to take up the reins in an instant. When she duly flounders he berates her and she departs in a flood of tears. Well, almost. Of course he will subsequently repent of his severity on her, though without admitting it, (after Clemmie has admonished him - a scene in which she uses words addressed to him a letter not face to face) and gruffly accept her back, revealing his bark to be worse than his bite; she will overcome her trepidation and settle in to become super-efficient, devoted to him and end up as his greatest cheer-leader. So far, so stereotypical.
Then a police motorcyclist roars up to the doors of the mansion to deliver a telegram to Churchill from the Palace. Whatever can it be? Surely it cannot be an invitation to become PM. Why, yes it is. We are transported to Buck House where a rather sallow and self-doubting King George VI is waiting for him, having already had another exposition- laden conversation with the outgoing Chamberlain in which they discuss Churchill’s shortcomings and his litany of policy debacles (Gallipoli, the Gold Standard, the Abdication crisis, etc, etc). George here, unlike in The King’s Speech, manages to keep his stammer under control, though only by some obscure means that leaves him looking perpetually constipated. Churchill and the king discuss matters and agree to meet weekly as per the constitutional custom. Though Churchill of course has to impress upon His Majesty, and upon us, what a Bohemian he is because he cannot make it for 4pm on a Monday because that is the time he has his nap.
We then see him take up the appurtenances of office and select his Cabinet (a very swift and perfunctory matter here) and renew acquaintance with old ally Anthony Eden whom he appoints War Minister (credited as Sir Anthony though he did not receive his knighthood until many years later). Then to a convivial family gathering with his wife, son and daughters wherein Clemmie describes with mock despondency her life of self sacrifice on the altar of her husband’s ambition. They make a toast to “not buggering it up”; an actual event though as with so much else kind of spatchcocked in and out of place.
Thence to Parliament again and his first speech as PM: “I have nothing to offer you but blood, toil, tears and sweat” in which he makes it clear that there will be no negotiated peace or “surrender”, cue much muttering of discontent on the Tory backbenches. This is artfully interspersed with scenes of the dictation of the speech to the by now well established Miss Layton (the only personal typist we see though he must have got through squads of them in reality) including the now regulation allusion to his tendency to dictate in a state of nature.
Chamberlain and Halifax meet privately to talk darkly of trying to unseat Churchill by means of a vote of no-confidence, though it would have been inconceivable for that to have originated from within the Cabinet, and certainly not immediately upon his accession to office. Chamberlain admits he has terminal cancer and “Will not see England at peace again”, though in actuality he had not yet been diagnosed and was never told of it even after he had been. Halifax is clearly being set up as the villain of the piece, because of course there has to be a villain. We are given a tour of the war rooms as Miss Layton, again, is introduced. She is ubiquitous in this film. He flies to France to meet the French premier, Reynaud, and is astonished and enraged to discover that they have no plans to counter-attack against the German blitzkrieg through the Ardennes. There is considerable humour extracted from Churchill’s execrable attempts at French (probably close to reality here).
Then more scenes of Tory backbenchers chafing at Churchill’s leadership, and more exposition. George and Halifax plot together against Churchill. I was amused to be treated to the apocryphal scene of Churchill declining to see the Lord Privy Seal at Chartwell because he is sealed on the privy and can only deal with one shit at a time - the best line in the whole film (recounted in Boris Johnson’s lively biography of the great man). At Chartwell, Clemmie bemoans their financial state. “I will economise with only four cigars a day”. “You are insufferable!” “Pig.” They exchange endearments because of course they are really in love despite the shouting matches.
Churchill tries out his trademark V sign for the benefit of the paparazzi but gets it the wrong way round, and in a quite bizarre scene he has it explained to him (by Miss Layton of course and in the war rooms) that it should be done palm outwards and what the palm inwards version means. The idea that a callow, young female typist in the 1940s would be having a conversation of this nature with the PM, any PM, is anachronistic beyond measure. We have his first radio broadcast. Churchill is exasperated, unfamiliar with the technology and baulks at being rushed by the producer. Will he come through with the goods? After a lengthy hesitation (has he lost his nerve?) he launches upon his speech with characteristic vim and brio (and Miss Layton there in the background willing him on of course). He gives an inaccurately optimistic account of the situation in France so as to boost morale and is subsequently rapped over the knuckles for it by the king.
Back to the war rooms and he is briefed by the military chiefs to the effect that the “whole British army” is trapped on the beaches at Dunkirk and under threat of wipe-out by German bombers and artillery. This is absurd because although there were 300,000 men in northern France there were millions more, both professionals and conscripts, based all over the globe; but that would be insufficiently melodramatic. However, Churchill is informed that there is a small garrison at Calais, and orders that they make a diversionary attack upon the Germans. Halifax demurs, saying it would be suicide and that there is an offer of negotiating a peace via the Italians (then not yet at war with Britain). Halifax urges this be taken up. Churchill is angrily dismissive. The problem with this and subsequent such scenes is that in reality such arguments would never have been held in the presence of the military. Political questions, of which the Italian peace plan was quintessentially one, and the whole question of whether to negotiate at all would have been dealt with in Cabinet, and probably just within the War Cabinet. Of course it is more dramatic to have these rows in semi-public but it forfeits plausibility.
We have a transatlantic telephone call to Roosevelt, one of the funniest scenes in the film, probably intentionally so unlike many others. Churchill asks to be supplied with the planes Britain has bought with the money the USA lent, only to be told, hilariously, that as a result of the Neutrality Act that has just been passed through Congress, they cannot be despatched, though they could be pulled across the Canadian border by horses! This scene is truly uproarious, but comes across more like a comedy double act than a discussion between two great world statesmen. And it clearly did not take place because it was not possible at that time to hold direct scrambled calls with the USA, and I cannot really believe that such a conversation, brilliant though it undoubtedly is, could possibly have taken place. It is a preposterous scene.
There is a call to First Sea Lord “Bertie” Ramsay, wherein Churchill floats (almost literally) his idea of a civilian flotilla to rescue the army at Dunkirk.
Churchill has dinner at the Palace with the king. “How do you drink so much?” “With practice”! The royal families’ evacuation to Canada is canvassed, his position being insecure. George tells Churchill “You scare me”, due to his unpredictability. Churchill explains that there is “wildness in his blood”, “my father was everywhere”. Would Churchill really have had this conversation at that time with his sovereign, especially given the frosty relations still subsisting between them? I cannot believe it.
More war room stuff, Eden is now present. More rows with Halifax, “stop interrupting me when I am interrupting you!”; “I have overdone it with including old rivals in the Cabinet.” Halifax gets to make a powerful intervention opposing but Churchill shouts him down; “You cannot reason with a tiger when your head is in its mouth”. Halifax threatens resignation, and in an allusion to Gallipoli, Churchill defends himself by saying that it was designed to alleviate the situation on the western front where men were “chewing barbed wire”. A good and illuminating exchange here, though probably not made at that juncture.
Chamberlain and Halifax plot some more; “the king will back us”. There is the commencement of Operation Dynamo. Churchill sends a telegram to Brig. Nicholson, commander of the Calais garrison, to the effect that there will be no evacuation of his troops. Miss Layton becomes distressed as she is typing this. Naturally she has a brother there, who we learn subsequently didn’t make it. She is taken to the Inner War Room to be shown the situation. The Calais garrison is in dire straits.
Hereafter the film starts to nosedive, not that it has been flying at all that great an altitude for the previous hour but there has been some effort at verisimilitude. But from hereon each scene is more preposterous than the last. Churchill starts to vacillate as the military briefings bring more and more dire news with capitulations everywhere, forecasts of airborne and sea invasion by the Germans and Halifax still pressing for peace negotiations, via Bastianini, the Italian ambassador. Churchill wavers, prepared to countenance some concessions to Hitler, evidenced by his losing his normal oratorical flair. The words won’t come! He mumbles his contempt for Hitler, the tyrant and housepainter (we cannot be sure which he thinks is worse).
The king is angry at the situation, and chafes at being asked to flee to Canada. George makes an impromptu visit to Churchill (at Chartwell or no 10, not clear). Such a visit would have been inconceivable; any contact would have been strictly formal and pre-determined. George was not the sort of monarch to drop in on people unannounced. And he certainly would not have been sitting having a heart to heart on the edge of Churchill’s bed! But somehow the king has been converted to Churchill’s side in a Damascene conversion for reasons never entirely explained. He urges Churchill to go to the people. Even more preposterous!
With the kings words still ringing in his ears Churchill, en route to Downing St, looks out of his car at the people scurrying about and we have a curiously effective slow motion tableau of London life, which underlines the physical authenticity of the film (if not is spiritual authenticity). This precipitates one of the most excruciating scenes I have ever witnessed in a film, which is saying something. Churchill decides he must ask the people! He darts out from the back of the car to the astonishment of his driver. “We’ve lost the PM” they announce in the war room. Churchill has popped down into the London Underground, and, asking a bemused passenger how to get to Westminster he boards a railway carriage to the utter dismay of its occupants who all instantly recognise him. “What’s the matter, haven’t you seen a PM before?” He then engages in a wince-inducing forum with the assembled passengers as they gather round him like children at Santa Claus’s grotto. In this ad hoc focus group he queries them as to their collective mood; what they feel about negotiations for peace? What would they do if Britain were invaded? and so on. The carriage seems to have ground to a halt whilst these conversations take place for it is only two minutes to the Westminster stop and the discussions last for at least ten. The passengers are all salt of the earth types, all working class, and include a girl and a black man (good to see the screenwriter got the memo on diversity). Churchill sedulously takes their names. They are of one mind and all fiercely oppose negotiations, and are determined to fight to the bitter end, even after an invasion. The girl is the most strident and delivers the wince-inducing clincher, “Never, never!”
This scene is wrong on every level imaginable. Churchill, as he himself mentions early on, had never travelled on the underground or a bus or indeed any form of public transport for that matter, and never did. It would have been impossible for him to have slipped away unnoticed since his bodyguard would have been seated next to him, and there would probably have been others in the car. The idea that he could find a tube carriage quiet enough and stationary enough for him to hold forth as he does is outlandish. Public opinion at that time could not have been accurately gauged, since opinion polling was still in its infancy, but all of the available evidence suggests that the British people, of all classes and political affiliations, were at that time deeply divided on the war, with perhaps, even probably, a majority for peace negotiations if they were on offer and reasonable terms could be achieved. The notion that this supposed cross-section of the populace would be so unanimously and adamantly against negotiation (and it is clear in the film that this is meant to be a sincerely held if hitherto unvoiced view, not merely something they were saying for Churchill’s benefit) is preposterous! And would Churchill really have been that anxious to discern the people’s view, particularly if it might have contradicted his own. He had his unshakeable outlook and he had pursued his anti-appeasement and pro-rearmament campaign from the early thirties onwards when public opinion would almost unquestionably have been pro-appeasement and anti-re-armament.
Back to Parliament, and Churchill, having now found his way there from the tube and having recovered his former resolution, convenes a meeting of the “Outer Cabinet”, rounding up several strays along the way. I am not sure there was such a thing as the Outer Cabinet, only the Cabinet proper and the War Cabinet; and this body could not possibly have included random backbenchers summoned at a moment’s notice; and even if so would have been seated around a table not bunched together in a huddle in an eyrie of the Commons, but trifles such as these are not permitted to deflect the filmmakers from their mission to tell a story. They, like the tube travellers, enthusiastically endorse his decision to reject negotiations, cheering him to the rafters after he makes his famous peroration that “If our island story is to come to an end it will only be when each and every one on of us lies choking on the ground in his own blood.” Yet another Churchillism spatchcocked in to bolster the script.
And thence to the climactic scene of the film in which Churchill again address the Commons, and makes his most famous speech, “We shall not flag or fail, we shall go on to the end...We shall fight them on the beaches...”, re-affirming in the starkest possible terms his refusal to countenance negotiation. Miss Layton is of course in the gallery to cheer him. She is everywhere. This is greeted ecstatically by the whole House, on both sides and in all parties, with order papers fluttering furiously in response to his every cadence. No explanation is given for these apparent changes of conviction. Churchill strides out of the chamber to unanimous and thunderous acclamation with order papers scattered everywhere as if it were a ticker tape parade on Fifth Avenue. Even Chamberlain tacitly signals he does not dissent and Halifax, watching from the gallery, is left isolated in his adherence to peace talks. “He mobilised the English language and sent it into battle!” he says despairingly. The speech is of course justly famous but it would not even then have won the universal approval depicted here, with many on both sides, especially his own, still deeply unconvinced, and Labour only grudgingly acquiescent.
And the speech is heard live on the radio by the king and by Clemmie, which of course it wasn’t and could not have been because there was no live or even recorded transmission of Parliament in those days, not until the 1970s. The speech was recorded by Churchill many years later and broadcast, the one we often hear. And Oldman’s delivery of the speech differs markedly in its rhythms and emphases from Churchill’s rendition, though of course Churchill may have uttered it differently by contrast to his later recording.
The problem with this film is that it bends historical truth, indeed snaps it in two at several points, in the interests of conforming to a stock Hollywood narrative formula. A weak and aloof ruling class vacillates in the face of threats from an evil and despotic enemy at the gates, havers in its conduct of a war it never really wanted and seeks a cowardly route out via negotiation. A hero emerges from the shadows to challenge the ruling elite, a man who walks with kings but retains the common touch, and channelling the unexpressed but authentic voice of the people, topples the ruling elite, seizes the reins of power by force of personality, and after a bit of a wobble caused by extreme adversity and the enormity of the task ahead, he rallies to a triumphant conclusion, leading the nation to victory on the battlefield. This is a travesty of historical truth in all its myriad complexity and uncertainty. Hollywood at its worst. The whole fiasco reminded me of nothing quite so much, as an IMDB reviewer noted, of The Strike (1988), an episode of The Comic Strip Presents strand shown on Channel 4 satirising Hollywood treatment of British historical themes with all its misapprehensions and distortions.
There is real story to tell but it requires subtlety and political understanding. Nuance is totally absent here. For example negotiation is equated with surrender, appeasement with defeat, etc. To be fair Halifax, as representative of the establishment, does get to put the alternative case, but he is characterised so strongly as a dour and unimaginative figure, unlike the real Halifax (the Holy Fox) that we are invited to hiss and boo him at every turn, thus undercutting the power of his argument.
One yearns to see the high politics of the period dealt with in a much more authentic and nuanced way, analysing the machinations of those years; but such a project can really only be undertaken by television with its more leisurely time frame. This has been attempted of course over the years, with varying results. One thinks for example of The Wilderness Years (1981) starring Robert Hardy as Churchill, though dealing with the preceding period of his career, from 1929 to 1939. Churchill’s rise was genuinely heroic in some ways, but not as presented here.
18th May 2020