Darkest Hour is a love letter from screenwriter Anthony McCarten to speechwriter Winston Churchill, says Dan Slevin.
During the triumphant final moments of Joe Wright’s Darkest Hour, the defeated appeaser Lord Halifax (Stephen Dillane) mutters to himself that Prime Minister Winston Churchill – who has just given his “we will fight them on the beaches” speech to an initially sceptical parliament – “mobilised the English language and sent it into battle”.
It’s a great line, except that Halifax himself never said it. President John F. Kennedy used the line when giving an ailing Churchill an honorary US citizenship in 1963 but even he purloined it – from the journalist Edward R. Murrow who used it to describe Churchill in one of his broadcasts in 1954.
And it is too good a line to leave out of a film about Churchill, especially as it gets to the very nub of why screenwriter Anthony McCarten wants us to care about the wartime leader. Darkest Hour is – in its essence – a love letter from one great writer to another and a manifesto for the ability of great writing (allied to great speaking) to move and transform the world.
But it’s also about the work of writing. There’s an awful lot of typing in this film (Lily James plays a fictional secretary who also represents the audience), not to mention some tense last-minute editing before a radio broadcast as well some elegant pencil note taking in the office of the war cabinet.
Darkest Hour runs parallel with Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk from last year. If you have seen the other film, it is almost impossible not to imagine those pathetic hordes stuck on the beach waiting forlornly for rescue and the fishing boats and pleasure cruisers on their way to retrieve them. Wright’s film tries to summon similar images but doesn’t have the scale. It’s a much more modestly budgeted affair (with most of the costumes rented rather than constructed, my costumier companion noted). That isn’t to say that Wright’s film is visually inferior, far from it, and there is one transition – with the aid of digital animation – that takes one’s breath away.
The film covers a fortnight or so in the life of a faded politician who, through the failure of political machinations around him, has greatness thrust upon him. His one strength is that he sees Hitler’s danger for what it is. Somehow, even though he was born into the British aristocracy, Churchill doesn’t join his colleagues in trying to maintain their position in whatever New World order Herr Hitler has in mind. I could have done with a little more of the reasons why he was so adamant but perhaps that’s another film (or I should go and read a book or something).
The high-born iconoclast Churchill is portrayed by working class Gary Oldman in a turn that is a triumph for the astonishing makeup and hair skills of Kazuhiro Tsuji as well as Mr. Oldman himself. He rises above impersonation with a lightness of touch that makes you wonder why he hasn’t chosen more comedies in his illustrious screen career.
The rest of the cast is fleshed out with an epic cohort of British luminaries and luvvies and we give thanks that – thanks to theatre and television – British actors still bat all the way down and that – thanks to Game of Thrones – they can still afford to eat.
But it is the script that is the star here, or at least the scriptwriter. McCarten wisely steps back periodically to let Churchill’s own words – and Shakespeare where necessary – do some heavy lifting. The greatest scene is another that never happened but its very presence in the film – and absence from real life – is McCarten taking yet more inspiration from Churchill himself. As he is about to be defeated by his rivals regarding a peace deal with Hitler, Churchill takes a tube train for the first time and communes with the common British citizenry who tell him that they will never surrender – never!
The scene never happened, of course, but the film needs it to have happened in the same way that, in an earlier radio address to the nation, Churchill needs to fabricate a brave rear-guard action by the Tommies in France. The truth is less important than an inspiring narrative and you can see why that would be music to a screenwriter’s ears.
Darkest Hour is in cinemas now.