Friday 19 January 2018

The Current Cinema - Max Berghouse has a night out at DARKEST HOUR (Joe Wright, UK, 2017)

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
Gary Oldman (Mr Churchill) gets all the good lines (most of them I think of Mr Churchill himself) but I don't think he is either better or worse than the half-dozen or so fine English actors who have portrayed Mr Churchill with the aid of elaborate make up, the inevitable three-piece suits with polkadot blue tie and the rather convoluted voice which makes Churchill sound like a man speaking with a mouthful of peanut butter. It is a very exterior performance and I think seldom touches upon the interior of the man. Of course perhaps film wasn't designed to do this. Many critics however have given the performance top marks for its subtlety, which alas, I couldn't see.

'...quite superb', Ronald Pickup as Neville Chamberlain
Darkest Hour
There are elisions of history, some to the point of sheer fiction and some in which real events are placed in different context, for dramatic purposes. I quite understand this. The historical accuracy of some matters can be disputed. For example in the very first scene set inside the House of Commons, the Leader of the Opposition, Mr Attlee (David Schofield) upbraids members of the Conservative government on the other side, by name. This was never done. Members of the House referred to each other as "the (Right) Honourable member for the name of the constituency, but if that had been followed, it would have been more difficult to introduce the characters themselves. These characters included the Prime Minister, Neville Chamberlain (Ronald Pickup – quite superb) and ultimately the Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs, Viscount Halifax (another superb performance by Stephen Dillaine who has mastered the very slight upper class lisp spoken so frequently in that time).

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.

Still, for what it is, highly entertaining.
Churchill (Gary Oldman), Clementine (Kristin Scott Thomas), Darkest Hour

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