My wife and I went to see this film (apart from enjoying each other's company) for different reasons. My wife who cheerfully admits that she has relatively little knowledge of history wanted to be "informed" and was keen to see the film, whereas I, quite well versed in history and having seen the very significant number of eminent English actors portray Mr Churchill, was rather apprehensive. Not in terms of the acting that I might see, nor the way the events were depicted, but simply because I doubted I could sustain much interest anew.
As it transpired, I found the film Darkest Hour (Joe Wright, UK, 2017) quite a diverting two hours (its running time is two hours five minutes). It is in essence a BBC style costume drama with all the accurate historical details one expects. It is also tolerably accurate to history, with the deviations from the facts entirely justifiable in terms of dramatic necessity and narrative. But that's all it is. Simply a very pleasant film, quite possibly directed to the Academy which always admires stories of true grit and coming from behind to ultimate triumph.
|Gary Oldman as Churchill, Darkest Hour|
|'...quite superb', Ronald Pickup as Neville Chamberlain|
In fact, there isn't a performance that is not completely convincing throughout the film.
While there are a number of things that in a forensic sense I think were incorrect, which showed up early in the film, such as post-war English cars outside the Houses of Parliament, and not entirely period correct ones, and Churchill going to Buckingham Palace to receive the seals of office, in the ceremony known as the "kissing of hands" wearing a three-piece day suit and carrying a silk top hat, whereas it's almost certain that he would have worn full morning attire, by the time Churchill is introduced to King George VI (beautifully played by Ben Mendelsohn, who has the king almost down pat, even to consistently using his left hand. The king was left-handed but I think Mr Mendelsohn is right handed).
It is naturally inevitable in any modern dramatic production that there is a protagonist (Mr Churchill) who has to battle with and overcome his antagonist(s). These latter are portrayed by Mr Chamberlain and Viscount Halifax. The result is that the genuine historical complexity of the actions and feelings of, especially these two latter men, is thinned out to the point almost of caricature. Both men were in fact of the highest moral integrity but they are portrayed as persons of only slightly better than limited political venality. This is particularly the case with Viscount Halifax, nicknamed "the Holy Fox" an exceptionally pious Anglo-Catholic, possibly better known as Lord Irwin, who only a few years previously had been Viceroy of India.
The direction is pleasant but entirely workmanlike. It uses CGI to good effect but not to the point of seeming to create reality. Instead it is well wrought artistry. For myself, I think this is better. The musical score is delicious.
There are some clumsy plot turns, but these are so clumsy, for example the King' s sudden and really inexplicable turn from doubt to support of his first Minister, as to be immediately apparent as plot narrative turns rather than reality.
The real and fundamentally moral problem with this film is in its portrayal of history. For better or worse, there are vast numbers of people who will acquire knowledge of history from a film like this. Just as generations prior have learnt about William Randolph Hearst from the film Citizen Kane (Orson Welles, USA, 1941) when the historical Hearst is virtually nothing like the fictional Kane, so too can a dramatically engaging film like this, colour our view of history. Britain suffered enormously during the Second World War, losing its status as a superpower, bankrupting its economy, suffering an enormous death toll, losing the Empire but all these facts have been sustained by the view that the decision to fight on was correct. Yet history shows that Hitler was prepared to offer quite generous terms to Britain (whether he could be trusted is certainly open to debate) and the extremely committed Christian Lord Halifax, is clearly morally correct to try and salvage what he could after the debacle in France. It seems to me a pity now after all these years that a more mature and nuanced dramatic narrative could not be conceived.