Magazine | January 22, 2018, Issue

Phony War

It is a strange thing to have Joe Wright’s Darkest Hour, about Winston Churchill’s fateful May in 1940, so soon after Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk. The Nolan film was a World War II movie with a lot of the usual business edited out: no generals staring at maps or big stars masquerading as famous politicians, no humanizing sequences or flashbacks for the nameless soldiers, no scenes from the home front with the girls they left behind. Dunkirk took a story that in the old days would have been told in three sprawling hours and compressed it to less than two, and its effectiveness was a testament to economy, restraint, and focus.

Now, just six months later, we have a movie that’s basically a whole bunch of the stuff that Nolan decided to avoid, all the high politics swirling in London while the Tommies were trying to get out of France alive, with a star turn from Gary Oldman as Sir Winston Leonard Spencer-Churchill and a parade of worthy actors occupying the roles of Chamberlain and Halifax, George VI and Clemmie.

Indeed, so closely are their subjects linked that you could easily stitch the two films together, scene by scene and sequence by sequence, and come up with a more complete story of how Britain survived its darkest hour. The marriage of the two movies would be quite visually effective, with a sharp contrast between the gloom and claustrophobia of Wright’s Westminster and War Office and the sky and sea and sand of Nolan’s northern France. Such a combined film would also give its audience a broader and deeper sense of what was really at stake in the critical hours when France was falling and Britain’s determination to carry on was not yet certain — a sense of the world-historical context that some critics of Dunkirk said they missed in Nolan’s stripped-down story.

But the combination would also be jarring and ill-matched, because Nolan’s movie strives to resist cliché and bathos while Wright, after doing right by his story for a while, decides at the end to simply wallow in manipulative sentiment.

Until that end, the movie is not quite inspired but certainly effective. Oldman is one of the best Churchills we’ve had, his terrier’s face rounded out by prosthetics and his voice a little lighter and thinner than the legend but not all that far from the fact. Indeed, the only thing preventing me from giving in fully to the performance was the occasional echo of Oldman’s similarly made-up Count Dracula from the early stages of Francis Ford Coppola’s overripe Stoker adaptation years ago. (“We will fight on the beaches, Mr. Harker . . .”)

Around him are ranged Kristin Scott Thomas as Clementine, loyal and long-suffering, Lily James as Churchill’s new secretary, Elizabeth, one of those girls with a man (a brother, in her case) off fighting in France — and then the two doubters in his war cabinet, Neville Chamberlain and Viscount Halifax, played respectively by a rumpled Ronald Pickup and a sour-faced Stephen Dillane, and a third doubter in Buckingham Palace, George VI, played by Ben Mendelsohn.

As John Lukacs has argued, the struggle in the two allied countries over how to reckon with Hitler’s sweeping advance was a struggle between two different sorts of conservatism, two different kinds of right-wing men — de Gaulle’s resilient patriotism against Pétain’s despairing traditionalism, and Churchill’s romantic style against the balance-of-power, let’s-be-reasonable small-c conservatism that in their turns Chamberlain and Halifax embodied. And Darkest Hour does, within cinematic limits, a fine job of dramatizing that tension, even if in doing so it unfairly makes Chamberlain seem a little more defeatist and anti-Churchill than he actually was at this point in the conflict.

But then, for the sake of melodrama, the movie also makes Churchill seem more self-doubting than he really was, and brings him closer to the precipice of giving in to Halifax, to accepting negotiations and potentially abandoning the fight. My colleague Kyle Smith has called this choice a betrayal of Churchill’s memory; I minded it somewhat less on moral and historical grounds, but in dramatic terms it leads the movie to its weakest, most bathetic moment.

Wright wants, I think, to portray Britain’s resilience in 1940 as a testament not just to Churchill but to the entirety of its mixed political regime, with first the monarchy (George having come around to Winston) showing up to persuade the PM to keep fighting, and then the common people doing the same. The latter portrayal is accomplished by having Churchill, on his way to a war-cabinet meeting, descend into the Underground, where a collection of determined middle- and working-class Brits give him the strength to carry on by showing their determination — and helping, with their own words, to write his “fight on the beaches” stanzas into the bargain.

I will not deny that the scene dragged a tear or two from me, but I hated myself for spilling them: It’s manipulative and implausible claptrap, painful in its falseness, a screenwriter’s device creaking with contrivance. Worse, as a setup for the grand finale, the recreation of Churchill’s greatest speech, it does the opposite of what’s intended: It reminds you that, for all its verisimilitude elsewhere, Darkest Hour is just a movie after all.

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