In light of the 75th anniversary of VE Day, I thought i’d finally get around to watching that one where Gary Oldman plays Churchill.
Joe Wright’s Darkest Hour, 2017 runs for 2h 5 mins and details the events of May 1940 in Winston Churchill’s parliament, replacing Neville Chamberlain and immediately faced with the decision of whether or not to negotiate a peace treaty with Adolf Hitler or continue fighting, risking the fall of the British Empire.
The film is quite a slow burn and mostly a character focus with an emphasis on doubt. Gary Oldman’s performance is ultimately unique and innovative. The acclaimed actor spoke about his ‘contaminated’ view . on Churchill by the actors who came before him to play the great leader, in this interview. I found it touching that Oldman dug deeper to see a real man, more than just the bravado of the theatric one thinks of Churchill as, although Olman was still cautious to add in moments of theatricality. Olman dug into the humanity of the man, simply through performance.
The screenplay relied so heavily on Oldman’s presence, it offered him great, but few profound lines.
The figure of Churchill has been mythologised in film and television for dramatic effect. If director; Steven Knight can deliver Churchill having involvement with Birmingham gangs in the series Peaky Blinders, then it’s no shock that Joe Wright related to the figure in his own way by directing Oldman’s slightly less posh accent as Wright, the Londoner has stated, he ‘doesn’t relate to posh people’. (The Hollywood Reporter, 2017)
It is so interesting that a political figure, much like Kennedy has been adopted by popular culture as their own puppet character with whom they use as a character that represents many different people, classes and environments. Darkest Hour sees Oldman channel the forthright, dynamic and engaged figure, marching ahead of the crowd in both the physical and the mental. The scene in which he is informed about his inappropriate gesture, indicating ‘up your bum’ is delivered fantastically by Oldman. A true moment of comedy and light relief in the darkness of a war drama.
Wright’s influence is key here and frames the entire film. Darkest Hour is directed in alliance with the people, with emphasis on the secretary; Mrs Layton’s brother not having made it through Dunkirk, a moment that is given a profound duration as Churchill notices the picture on Mrs Layton’s desk, along with his albeit odd, tearful encounter with his ‘new friends’ on the underground. This propagandistic idealism is so surreal, no British prime minister, other than Love Actually’s Hugh Grant, would ever grace the public with his immediate presence, let alone produce tears, it just seems highly unlikely.
I would have also appreciated a more dedicate focus given to the soldiers receiving Churchill’s telegram, informing them that their evacuation across the English Channel from Dunkirk will not occur. This moment is directed with supreme speed and an awkward and repeated pan up to birds-eye-view shot. This does achieve the notion of distance from the stuffy interiors of the war room in Whitehall to the grand scale fo destruction of the front line – it just feels slightly rushed.
The chronology is worth speaking about, along with the historical accuracy of the film. The intrusive bold date graphics whips the film out of 1940 and place it right into the editing room of a popular YouTube channel, not to mention the dates are not accurate. The infamous speech, ‘We shall fight on the beaches’ given in the House of Commons is said to occur on May 28th in the. film, when in actuality the speech was given on June 4th. I am all for creative treatment and dramatisation to further the interpretation, but with the date of the most infamous speech?
One manufactured event in the film has an interesting outcome and highlights the long-standing relationship between the monarchy and parliament. In the film, King George VI is seen paying the prime minister a late-night visit at his home for what can only be described as a pep talk. The King discloses that Churchill has his full support in fighting until the end, not negotiating for a peace treaty. Churchill’s face lights up with a boyish gleam. Although there is no proof of this occurring, and would be highly unlikely, as well as Churchill’s unwavering stance on this matter – the moment provides a symbol for the relationship between the monarchy and the government. This is a relationship that has been explored in the TV Series, The Crown, Peter Morgan, 2016. Ben Mendelsohn’s King George VI is utterly brilliant. Throughout the film, the King has doubts about Churchill and admits fear towards the new prime minster’s outlandish ways. From the slight speech impediment to the sincere unsettlement felt by all, even the King at this time is exuded fantastically by Mendelsohn.
The treatment of this character/figure is fresh and innovative directed with a liberal sensitivity aimed at inspiring the people with a man of the people. I have come to decide that the historical inaccuracy adds to the sparkle of the film and how we Brits take ownership, pride and creative freedom in our history, even when retelling story in film.
Gary Olman’s performance is the ultimate shining star in this film; winning him over 20 awards including an Oscar for Best Actor and a Golden Globe for Best Actor.