It’s hard to watch a film about Winston Churchill through socialist eyes. As someone who has always condemned Churchill, sitting through a film pitting him as Europe’s saviour sounds like a torture session. So why did I come out of it so roused?
In hindsight – trickery of the highest sort.
It was easy to get drawn in by the beautiful direction and cinematography of Joe Wright and Bruno Delbonnel. Self-indulgent birds-eye views of the house of commons, uncomfortably close shots of Oldman’s expertly quivering lip – it was all there in abundance. The soundtrack was the perfect match to the film’s sustained, taut sense of dread and subsequent hope. Whereas last summer’s Dunkirk was famously dialogue-light, this version of the same time frame was all about the dialogue, which was always going to draw me in. And, well, Gary Oldman is frankly incredible, if unrecognisable. The only thing reminding you it’s still him under all that beige prosthetic plastic is his circular, pale blue eyes. Oldman simply embodied Churchill – if playing him a little erratically. He was either quiet, wobbly and emotional, or screeching his cigar-filled lungs out like a toddler who has had his toys taken away. I feel that some depictions of Churchill were somewhat improbable – when he gazes at his typist, saying “I just want to look at you” and then laughing with her about the phrase “up your bum” – but the physicality of Churchill was undoubtedly there.
But, my original suspicious prior to walking into the cinema were confirmed: we were fed the version of Churchill through a perfectly crafted keyhole.
In a frankly ridiculous fictional scene, Winston decides to take the tube one stop to Westminster, and delivers the truly cringeworthy line: “What’s the matter? You’ve never seen a Prime Minister ride the subway before?” By attempting to posit Churchil as down wiv da working class, the film has him shake hands with ordinary London tube-takers, including a black man – its almost as if Churchill hadn’t been a social darwinist, advocating the use of chemical weapons agains “uncivilised tribes” and one of the most prominent believer in the superior white man / primitive native myth in the 20th century. Do not let this bumblingly endearing portrayal of a grandfatherly Churchill trick you into forgetting that three million people starved to death in 1943 as a direct result of his policies, whilst he refused to allow food supplies into Bengal. Sure, the film is full of some genuinely emotional Oscar-clinching scenes, don’t let his past get pushed from your mind.
Although I understand why the film ended when it did, for some reason I was confused when the credits started rolling. In my mind I was someone gearing up for the whole war to be hashed out, but we didn’t even get to celebrate Operation Dynamo. Ending on we shall fight them on the beaches was rousing as hell, but it didn’t give me time to recover. The film was a straight upwards line, I didn’t get the peaks and troughts normally proffered to me in a film. I was left on a rush and a high – I couldn’t compartmentalise.
Above all, The Darkest Hour made me feel dejected. Why does everyone despise eachother after all we went through together? Europe was nearly lost to fascism, but European collaboration held it together. The patriotic myth of war and right-wing glory is swallowed by the current right, when really World War Two was all about the absurdity of borders. It was about helping allies, about sacrifice.
Even with this film to puff out his ego, I think Winston would be turning in his grave if he saw the world today.