B.C. Catholic Staff

Churchill's complexity on show in Darkest Hour

Voices Jan. 12, 2018

Darkest Hour contains a standout performance by Gary Oldman as Winston Churchill and is essentially a character study of the famed politician, writes Alan Charlton. (Chicago Sun Photo)

As media award dates come closer, a number of movies are attempting to put themselves in position to get recognition for achievement. Among them are two very different films, though they are in the same category: the familiar biopic genre.

Darkest Hour addresses a few days in May 1940 when Britain was faced with the reality of the collapse of most of Europe in the face of the Nazi juggernaut.

While many politicians favoured continuing with Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain’s policy of appeasement, there were others, notably Winston Churchill, who saw a policy of attempting to negotiate a truce with Hitler as inevitably leading to Britain’s loss of independence.

The country faced the horror of the possibility of losing its entire army on the beaches of Dunkirk. Acknowledging that appeasement had not worked until that point, the Conservative party reluctantly agreed to Churchill being asked to form a coalition government with the other political parties, most notably the Labour party, led by Clement Atlee.

In retrospect, it seems clear this was the right thing to do. At the time it seemed to be fraught with risk. Such is the central conflict of the film.

As such, the film becomes a vehicle for a standout performance by Gary Oldman as Churchill and, in fact, is essentially a character study of the famed politician.

Here Oldman in memorable performance presents Churchill with all his human complexity: irascible, witty, a heavy drinker and cigar smoker, a man of determination and resolution, and above all as a man of courage at a time of doubt.

It’s a great and thoroughly entertaining portrait, backed up by a superb cast, most notably by Kristin Scott Thomas as Clementine, Winston’s loving and self-sacrificing wife. Their two performances, even without the merit of most of the other aspects of film, make it worth the price of admission.

At the same time, the film, despite our knowing the outcome of all that is happening, manages to build tension, to depict the uncertainty of the time, and to recreate the events in gripping fashion.

Scenes in the famous War Rooms (today a notable tourist attraction) and those behind the closed doors of the powerful make the film and the drama it presents come alive.

It even manages in the limited time available to do a better job of presenting the Dunkirk evacuation than Dunkirk, a film entirely devoted to the event.

Only near the end does Darkest Hour falter with a totally fictional and ludicrously unbelievable attempt to show Churchill finding out the mood of a nation by holding an impromptu meeting on a surprisingly quiet London underground coach.

That Churchill was able to gain the support of the people is true; that he had that support so early in the war is questionable.

I distinctly recall when I was a child many people describing him disapprovingly as a “war monger.” However, for those of us who lived through the war there is no doubt that he eventually gained the support of virtually everyone in his war effort, through his leadership and above all his speeches, even though the nation eventually rejected him as a politician after the war.

Darkest Hour is a fitting testimony to the remarkable man who inspired the nation in its time of greatest trial. It is well worth watching and likely to be recognized in the awards that lie ahead.

Even though Hugh Jackman has already received an acting nomination for his performance in The Greatest Showman, this is one film which is not likely to gain much other recognition. An attempt to make a film musical based on the life of P.T. Barnum, the great seller of fraud and oddity, it is little more than a forgettable diversion.

With an insipid score by the same team who wrote the songs for La La Land, last year’s Oscar winner, it largely fails as a musical. The songs are forgettable, though the more spectacular musical numbers are superbly edited.

It is true that Jackman performs well in a vehicle on which he spent seven years bringing to the screen. However, as a biography of Barnum it only bears a superficial resemblance to the facts.

One hardly expects historical depth from a musical, but the attempt to give the film credibility through political correctness emphasizing a theme of inclusion is hardly justifiable in a film about a man who used people born with physical problems.

Better far to have concentrated on Barnum’s philanthropy and contribution as a politician. In some respects the film seems to be borrowing from the far more worthwhile stage musical Barnum. This is especially so in inventing an affair between Barnum and Jenny Lind, the opera singer whom Barnum did promote on a mutually profitable tour of America.

The stage show actually offers superior coverage of the showman’s life and is a far better and more joyous entertainment. This is worth noting as Barnum is readily accessible on YouTube as a filmed stage production starring the irrepressible and multi-talented Michael Crawford.