Joe Wright’s latest film, Darkest Hour, is not the first film about the events of Dunkirk that has been released in the past year (see my review of Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk). Nor is it the only film about Winston Churchill released recently – Brian Cox starred in a film which portrayed the British Prime Minister before D-Day in 2017.
Yet Darkest Hour is the reason why Gary Oldman (who plays Winston Churchill) has been nominated for the Oscars this year. It also features the fabulous Kristin Scott-Thomas as Churchill’s wife, Clemmie.
The cinematography is excellent – the dark and moody shots of parliament debating from above are an absolute marvel. The political machinations made in almost claustrophobic spaces of war-bunkers are fascinating. Chamberlain and Halifax struggle to accept Churchill’s decision to fight Germany and are determined to sabotage his actions. The atmosphere is tense, defused only by the occasional Churchill joke. A masterpiece in the making, one might have thought.
And yet… The whole effect was ruined for me, by a step too far towards hagiography. Why would anyone think a completely invented scene of Churchill travelling on the Tube and being admired by absolutely everyone is a good idea? Why would we think that Churchill based one of his most important decisions on the advice of London commuters? We even have Churchill chatting with a black person on the Tube, because, hey, it makes us feel good about ourselves doesn’t it? Look how lovely and rosy Britain was during World War II… Errrr?
I hate to be a party-killer, but the British people, charming as the notion is, had little to do with Churchill’s decision making at the time. Let me remind you, this very film portrays him as being elected as a prime minister NOT by the people, but by his party. Representative democracy at work. We cannot impose our own ideals on the past.
What makes Churchill so interesting, at least for me, is that he was a complex man. A man, who wholeheartedly embraced the idea of Britain as an Empire. A man who was prepared to compromise with Stalin in order to win the war. A man haunted by the ghost of his past failure at Gallipoli. A man living an aristocratic lifestyle he could not really afford. A man who struggled with depression throughout his life. And a hero, at the same time. One of the few people who saw Hitler for what he really was. He was complicated. It’s what makes him fascinating.
I pondered this scene for a good while, trying to figure out who in heaven’s name thought it would be a good idea to pretend that Churchill would consult every single person in a Tube carriage. Who would like to flatten a fascinating complex historical figure into a cardboard cutout? I mean, surely, as a film-maker, you would like a character who is more complicated rather than not. Nobody is particularly fond of one-dimensional characters…And then I remembered – a few weeks ago, I was flicking through the Daily Mail, and there were not one but two separate articles about WWII. One of them claimed that the UK did not fight for Europe, but only for itself, as if that were the honourable thing to do – and to fight for freedom for ‘the horrible French’ would somehow be a stain on a British gentleman’s character. The other compared Donald Trump to Winston Churchill and pointed out cheerfully that every single flaw of Churchill’s was, in fact, a strength, including his abuse of alcohol and occasional use of drugs (I’m sure Boris Johnson would like us to think that’s the case). The article was satirical, of course, but only very slightly.
And I realized that in order to get a good review from the Daily Mail, Joe Wright and his scriptwriter had to pretend that ultimately Churchill could do no wrong, complexity be damned. Which is a shame really, because if complexity be damned, the Daily Mail will be pleased but I will have to grumble.
P.S. It’s always entertaining to watch movies about WWII made from a British perspective as a Polish person. Take for example the moment when Churchill says, “yes, we can have peace with Hitler provided he restricts himself to Central Europe” – there’s an overwhelming impulse to say some very nasty swearwords to the screen…
Also, for some reason, just as the Americans take the most important event of the war to be D-Day (and they can make a serious case for it), the Brits seem to think that Dunkirk to be the most glorious event of the war? Which confuses me ever so slightly. But okay….