More noise than signal

Darkest Hour

Republished from the show notes of my other site, Fuds on Film.

1940 was, all things considered, a garbage year. Nazis! Nazis everywhere. Well, mainly mainland Europe, spreading quickly across France. With Allied forces on the run, Neville Chamberlain finds himself facing, and losing, a vote of no confidence. The only acceptable candidate for a grand coalition government is Winston Churchill, who is duly sworn in by a sceptical King George VI, with Churchill himself only tolerated rather than supported by his party, the Tories. For listeners outside of the U.K., that’s the evil party, although, well, they’re not so bad when compared to the Nazis. Nazis are just the worst.

This film only concerns itself with a few weeks of World War Two, but they’re pivotal. With Allied forces being overwhelmed and driven back to Dunkirk with seemingly little hope of rescue, there’s the general feeling amongst the war cabinet that the situation is hopeless, and that the course of action that will minimise the loss of life and allow some semblance of normality on the homeland would be to sue for peace.

Churchill will hear of no such thing and presses for options to continue the fight, including the now famous evacuation of Dunkirk. This intransigence pushes Chamberlain to start agitating behind the scenes for another vote to depose Churchill, giving Churchill another front to fight on. However, after sampling public opinion, Churchill pushes through with his instincts and rallies parliament and the public to fight the Nazi threat to the end.

Now, all of that makes for a relatively interesting work of fiction looking at the levers of wartime politics, and a capsule take on why Churchill is held in such regard to this day. Unfortunately the critical part of that last sentence was “work of fiction”, as in terms of accuracy, or at least verifiable accuracy, I wouldn’t trust this film much past it saying “World War Two happened”.

Most of the critical moments that inform the film’s look at Churchill, and indeed his political rivals, are inventions, in particular the brain-meltingly idiotic “Churchill runs off and takes the Underground to chat to the people” sequence that could not be sappier and hokier if it tried.

Most of the discussion about Darkest Hour revolves around Gary Oldman’s Winston Churchill impression, which may be why I was expecting something much more powerful than was delivered. It’s a decent impression, to be sure, but that does rather get in the way of connecting with Churchill as a character supposedly being tested to the point of abandoning his beliefs.

Still, Churchill is a fascinating enough character to shoulder the burden of the film, and its certainly an enjoyable enough watch. When, as here in Darkest Hour, you only pull the laudable, admirable bits of Churchill’s character, it’s obvious why he’s still frequently ranked as the best Brit what ever lived and that.

It makes very little effort to show the other side of Churchill’s character and deeds, bar a small reference to the failure at Gallipoli, which does at times have this edge uncomfortably close to hagiography and propaganda. Not for this film to mention, for instance, his quite horrendous racism, or role in starving three million Indians, or his other steadfast defences of Imperial atrocities.

I suppose that’s just not in this film’s remit, but there’s something about the combination of inaccuracy in this look at the events and incompleteness of the examination of Churchill’s character that makes it seem almost like a waste of effort on everyone’s behalf.

Shorn of that concern, which, to be honest, may be the sort of concern that only develops when you have to write a review about it, Darkest Hour is certainly a well put together film, with a talented cast in front of and behind the cameras, and kept me entertained for the two hours or so it lasts. It’s just not a great source if you want to be informed at the same time. Citation needed.