I am unreliably informed that, in the better British drama schools, they offer students classes in Churchill Acting. You know how this goes. Budding Hardys, Finneys and Coxes learn to smoke cigars while eating steak and kidney pudding. They are taught how to enunciate when both cheeks are swollen with padding. Gary Oldman, though physically less suited than almost any previous Winstonian, acquits himself admirably in this study of the great man’s first weeks in No 10. It’s a warmer version than some others. Though occasionally cross, he most often suggests a larger version of Paddington (hard stares and all).
What more can you do? It’s up to the writers and the director to find new angles on a wearingly familiar story. Sad to relate, Anthony McCarten’s pedestrian script fails to offer any surprises. Taking us from Chamberlain’s resignation to the aftermath of Dunkirk, the film resists no opportunity to indulge in clunking exposition. “He has never forgiven me for supporting his brother’s marriage – to Wallis Simpson,” Churchill, approaching the king’s quarters, says to people who must already know all this. Elsewhere, MPs make sure to remind each other that Lord Halifax is the “foreign secretary”.
In the film-makers’ defence, the dispute between Churchill and those who wanted to strike a deal with Hitler is laid out with a clarity that presses home how reasonable the appeasers’ position once seemed. Nobody with an interest in the material will often find their attention drifting.
Darkest Hour remains, however, very much like something the BBC might show on a Sunday night. Joe Wright certainly works hard to justify its place in the cinema. He favours bird's-eye views of the battlefield. A long tracking shot across busy Westminster street is spectacular, even if the citizens look cosy enough for Four Weddings and a Funeral. But, rather than springing from the narrative, these flourishes appear arbitrarily imposed on the action. (In contrast, the film's literal darkness labours its visual metaphor to extinction.)
No cinematic innovation could make sense of an abysmal late scene that finds the prime minister, struggling with the words for a famous speech, communing with a jolly collection of ethnically diverse Londoners on the Tube. One quotes Macaulay. Others mutter the word “never” more than once. Never? Never? Hmmm? At least they resisted the temptation to position Churchill beneath a convenient light bulb.