The much anticipated follow-up and prequel to Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk, Darkest Hour hits theatres this January as the latest instalment in the Brexit Cinematic Universe. That’s right, it’s not just comic-book and Star Wars fans that can look forward to a long series of interconnected cinematic releases in the coming years, it appears that pro-leavers are also getting in on the Marvel-formula fun, and we can now look forward to a long list of films depicting Britain’s favourite moments in its history. A Margaret Thatcher reboot (she’s even called The Iron Lady), maybe a Waterloo epic in three parts, Peter Jackson style. Or what about a crossover, Napoleon v Wellington: Dawn of Justice?
Jokes aside, watching Darkest Hour after having seen Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk last summer does give the film a weirdly prequel feel to it. You know the way Rogue One: A Star Wars Story was all about how the Rebels in the original Star Wars (A New Hope) got the Death Star plans in the first place? Well, prepare to see an eerily similar story-telling device in Darkest Hour, only this time you’re not watching a sci-fi blockbuster about magic samurai, but a history biopic about Winston Churchill. Not only that, but there’s even a scene where, having hatched the idea of sending civilian vessels to rescue British soldiers at Dunkirk, Churchill (Gary Oldman) solemnly tells Admiral Ramsay “we need a name for this operation” (cue dramatic turn to Dynamo generator). In all fairness, this detail is actually perfectly true, but its execution just feels too similar to the same scene in Rogue One.
The film isn’t so much a character-study of Winston Churchill as it is a study of his choice between negotiating peace terms with the Nazis, or entering into another world war against them. And the way in which the characters ultimately arrive at their decisions does feel a little too Brexit to take seriously. Yes, it can be a bit unfair to go into a film like this purposefully looking for Brexit-parallels to laugh at, Darkest Hour certainly does itself no favours. King George VI (Ben Mendelsohn), who spends most of the film opposing Churchill, eventually comes around to his way of thinking. What was it that changed his mind, you ask? Intellectual debate? Discussing his country’s predicament with experts? A close examination of well-research facts? Nope. “I feel angry” stammers the King. Yes, it’s the King’s unexplainable I-feel-it-in-my-gut sense of anger that changes his mind. Call it British intuition, I suppose. Similarly, Churchill hits a low patch during the film when he begins to doubt whether fighting the Axis powers is the right decision. That is until he decides to take a little detour out of the film’s historically grounded narrative and into a completely made up scene with no historical basis. Taking the London Underground to Westminster, Churchill meets a cast of plucky, dewy-eyed, British citizens who passionately advocate war over peace talks; “Fight them with whatever we can lay our hands on!” shouts one man. “Broom handles if we must!” replies another woman. (Wow, this group is almost too enthusiastic). But nevertheless, thank God the British people were there to help their leaders make such a big decision that would shape the course of their country’s history for years to come… otherwise, who knows what sort of blunder Parliament could have ended up making. That would have been embarrassing.
No historical biopic is one-hundred percent accurate, and there’s always going to be a little bit of bending the truth to keep the film engaging and just to speed up the story-telling process. But making the pivotal scene of your film the one where you blatantly make stuff up is not only a bad idea, it’s morally condemnable. In discussing this scene, Director Joe Wright told Cinema Blend that he thinks of the scene as “a fictionalization of an ‘emotional truth’”. That’s got a nice ring to it, but it’s no excuse. This is a film about an undeniably important moment in British and European history (and let’s be honest, a lot of people are going to take this film as gospel truth) so to include such an egregiously untrue scene at such an important moment in the film is just as bad as fake news if not blatant propaganda.
Meanwhile, back on the London Underground, there’s a little bit of Shakespeare-quoting before we’re back in Westminster. Churchill then proceeds to (correct me if I’m wrong) seemingly repeat more or less the same speech from earlier in the film, except this time everyone’s totally on board with it? Wait, what happened that everyone’s suddenly cool with going to war? That’s another odd feature of Darkest Hour: the film features this constant narrative clash between what we’re told by the characters and what we see on screen. There’s a saying that the difference between fact and fiction is that fiction has to make sense. And since this film (for the most part) is the former, then technically this rule doesn’t apply. That said, there’s something jarring about watching Churchill dramatically yelling “we shall fight on the beaches” having just seen him evacuate 300,000 soldiers off the beaches at Dunkirk in the previous scene.
What’s Gary Oldman like as Churchill? Will he get the Oscar? Yeah, probably. The facial props are genuinely incredible. Oldman is unrecognisable, and he definitely nails the curmudgeonly, stiff manner of Churchill, constantly slurring his words and chewing his cigars. Speaking of looking the part, huge credit has to be given to the facial-prop and make-up departments responsible for Chamberlain (Ronald Pickup). It literally looks like they exhumed the real Chamberlain, reanimated him and convinced him to star in this Churchill flick. It feels pointless to discuss the rest of the acting, as the cast are all pretty much only there to offer linguistic forays for Oldman’s Churchill to parry with his Oscar Wilde-like wit. As the film goes on, it can sometimes feel like watching a load of actors tossing balls in front of the camera for Oldman to knock out of the park.
The music is (with the possible exception of the fabricated London Underground scene) the worst feature of this film. Almost all of the scenes are robbed of any tension by musical cues telling you what to feel. What’s that? Hyperactive strings? Churchill must have had an idea! Even at the end of the film, it feels like all the characters are only getting excited because they can hear the orchestra swelling too.
Overall, Darkest Hour is solid, and it has some great moments. You certainly get a sense for the claustrophobia of making decisions in an underground bunker. But it’s hard to not see the obvious Brexit propaganda embedded in the script (the fabricated scene on the London Underground being the standout). For years we’ve all had a good laugh at the completely over-the-top Hollywood Americuh war films, so maybe it’s time that we start holding British war films accountable too. Anyway, I’m sure they’ll clear it up any problems in the sequel, Darkest Hour 2: the Winston Soldier.