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Saturday, February 3, 2018


(Gary Oldman as Sir Winston Churchill)

Director Joe Wright has given us the best film yet on Winston Churchill, when his country and the free world faced their gravest crisis in World War 2. (Review by Patrick Compton 8/10).

In Darkest Hour, Gary Oldman gives the performance of his life as the growling old bulldog, Winston Churchill, who overcomes great odds, not only to defy Hitler but also members of his own pusillanimous war cabinet as the Nazi hordes threaten.

But if Oldman, brilliantly encased in his Churchill fat suit, is favoured to pick up the Best Actor Oscar that has always eluded him, the film itself falls short of perfection, due largely to a stagey, critically misjudged scene late in the film that takes place in a train on the London underground. Indeed, it’s possible that your overall appreciation of the movie will depend on whether you can sufficiently suspend your disbelief in the (fictional) scene in which Churchill meets the Common Man.

I wouldn’t go so far as that. For me, the rest of the movie is splendidly gripping and dramatically believable. Essentially it’s cast into the form of a thriller in which Churchill – who is appointed Prime Minister at the same time as Germany invades Belgium and France in May 1940 – must first overcome long odds at home before he can inspire his troops abroad.

The movie’s title ostensibly refers to Britain and France’s crisis of arms as the panzers sweep all before them as they push Allied troops back towards the beaches at Dunkirk.

But the title’s real meaning is the battle between Churchill and the fainthearts in his war cabinet who are still inclined to avoid war at all costs by exploring peace terms with “Herr Hitler”.

On May 10, as German troops stormed across the borders of neutral Holland, Belgium and Luxembourg, Churchill is appointed Prime Minister, a decision only reluctantly sanctioned by a sceptical King George VI (who later warms to him). His problems are only partly military, however, because former Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain and Lord Halifax, both notable appeasers during the late 1930s, remain unflinchingly committed to peace.

This is a film of dark corridors and smoke-filled meetings in the underground Cabinet War Rooms, of debates in a gloomy House of Commons and occasional exchanges between Churchill and his stalwart, witty and occasionally exasperated wife Clementine (superbly played by Kristin Scott Thomas). Director Joe Wright (Atonement) also uses the same device as another film on the great man, Churchill’s Secret, in which we view some of the action through the eyes of the great man’s pretty young companion. In the former movie, it’s a pretty nurse (Romola Garai) who is attending to him, while in this film it’s his attractive, hard-working secretary (Lily James of Downton Abbey fame).

In his memoirs, Churchill famously recorded the following sentiments after he became Prime Minister: “I was conscious of a profound sense of relief. At last I had the authority to give directions over the whole scene. I felt as if I were walking with destiny, and that all my past life had been but a preparation for this hour and this trial.” The film takes a more sceptical view, not only emphasising the doubts of his peers regarding his fitness for the job (taking into account his crippling failure in the Gallipoli campaign in 1915), but also Churchill’s own doubts and waverings.

The movie underlines the fact that, in the first hours and weeks of his premiership, it was clear that much of the British ruling class feared and disliked Churchill, regarding him as a loose cannon who could lead the country to disaster. By contrast, it was the nation as a whole who warmed to him and instinctively realised that he was the man to lead them in war.

Darkest Hour is, of course, a movie, but perversely perhaps, Anthony McCarten’s fine script celebrates the power of words, Churchill’s words, in the great clarion calls that inspired the nation. In those dark days, Churchill was truly a grand actor on the stage of human affairs, and he instinctively knew what a profoundly important function his words would serve.

In this respect, Oldman’s ability to embrace Churchill’s voice and gruff persona is truly remarkable. He is, by some distance, the best cinematic Churchill we have ever had. Aside from Scott Thomas, Oldman receives strong support from Stephen Dillane as the “Holy Fox”, Lord Halifax, principled, desperate for peace – and wrong; while Ronald Pickup embodies the very essence of the grave, aghast and sickly Chamberlain.

Darkest Hour opened at the Gateway, Pavilion and Watercrest malls on February 2. - Patrick Compton