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Not nearly as good as the advance media verdicts would have it

Being an admirer of Winston Churchill – for all his faults, regarded by some who should know enough to judge these things as one of the all-time greatest Englishmen – and having listened to the media jungle drums over the past month or two, I had made a decision earlier this week to break the habits of about a decade and actually visit the cinema in order to see the newly-released movie Darkest Hour.

Most pertinently, having waddled off to my local Odeon on Friday morning and purchased a ticket for an exorbitant £15 (and that with an Old Age Pensioner’s concessional discount!) for the 1.30pm performance yesterday, I had then deliberately tuned to the excellent Simon Mayo and Mark Kermode ‘film review’ programme broadcast by Radio Five Live from 2.00pm to 4.00pm on Friday afternoons in order to hear what Mr Kermode thought of the film.

His summary was that, whilst he accepted that the acting performance of Gary Oldman – starring as Churchill in Darkest Hour – was indeed outstanding and might even win him this year’s ‘Best Actor’ Oscar, he (Kermode) was not entirely convinced by the movie.

Now. I’m as able as the next man to form my own opinion of anything – and then stick to it in the face of derision, contrary argument and even sometimes the facts – but I have to record here that my view was similar to Kermode’s and I would like to say why.

Firstly, from my own perspective as a non-regular viewer of films either on television or in the cinema, Darkest Hour was not a particularly big-budget movie project. I have no idea at all what it cost to make, but let’s just hazard a guess that it wasn’t backed by Hollywood mega-bucks in the same way that some blockbuster movie projects are.

Having said that, it also wasn’t a back-of-the-envelope job dripping with cost-cutting measures and skimping.

Rather it was a mid-budget British-made affair and a very well-made one in production terms. I’m referring here to the attention to period details, the costumes, the settings, the props and all the other movie-making paraphernalia you’d expect.

That aspect was well-executed.

Secondly, Gary Oldman’s performance as Churchill was indeed first rate. Although he didn’t quite look – or sound – like Churchill as I know (or imagined) him, he brought to the role a sense of the inner charisma and passion that Churchill undoubtedly possessed and added other qualities, such as a quirky sense of humour and an ability to inspire others, that I felt rendered his portrayal of our WW2 national leader admirably believable.

So that’s another box ticked.

But thirdly, here’s the problem.

The producers [five of them led by Tim Bevan of Working Title], the director [Joe Wright] and the scriptwriter [Anthony McCarten, also given a producer credit] were facing a major problem with this project, which purports to represent what was going on in Churchill’s life in about a two-week period in May 1940, i.e. from a few days before he was finally chosen as the Prime Minister to succeed the about-to-resign Neville Chamberlain until about 25th May, just before the evacuation of 300,000 British troops from the beaches of Dunkirk began.

This problem operates on at least two different levels (and there maybe be more).

On the micro level – in terms of history, public life and political procedure – with a movie with a running time of just over two hours, there is zero chance of presenting events in the sort of time-frame in which they actually occurred.

Call it ‘necessary dramatic licence’ if you must, but inevitably the movie makers, facing the dilemma of trying to include as many different historical aspects as possible – in order to do justice to historic authenticity and the figure of Churchill himself – whilst simultaneously also seeking not to include hundreds of characters (and thereby cause the audience confusion) and keep the story chugging along – were always going to have to resort to the device of conflating events, opinions and quotations.

Good-intentioned as they may be, I’m afraid that in this film the filmmakers’ efforts on these matters are constantly obvious to anyone who has studied or read about the events being portrayed – to the point where they begin to have a negative effect and eventually become irritating.

On the macro level – and here I am really referring to the portrayal of Churchill – the same issues apply.

Put bluntly, over the course of (I would estimate) twenty-five to thirty early scenes – some of them short and intimate, others much longer, more broad brush and on a grander public scale – the makers of this film have felt obliged to cram in just about every well-known Churchill anecdote and joke or quote (either told by him or told about him by others) that ever saw the light of day.

The effect is quite disconcerting.

On one level, largely due to Gary Oldman’s brilliance as an actor, (I like to think) the onlooker gains a worthwhile insight into what Winston Churchill was actually like in real life. Which is probably half the reason that anyone would go to see this film.

But, on the other, it is rather like watching a famous stand-up comedian wandering around his house or house simply spouting the punch-lines to some of his best known jokes – as were de facto written by him over the course of say four decades’ worth of touring the music halls of Great Britain.

It just doesn’t ring true.

Nor does the scene when Churchill jumps out of a car, enters a London Underground station, boards a crowded Tube train, introduces himself to everyone and then proceeds to perform ten minutes’ worth of classic ‘Churchill speak’ with all of them fawning over him, including one young black man who helpfully joins in with and continues performing an epic poem that Churchill is quoting from.

Futhermore, as an aside – and I’m not necessarily here drawing a parallel between Britain in 1940 and the Brexit debate – but it would be a little as if, having just faced the complications and passions of a full-on Brexit debate in Parliament, Mrs May were to have escaped for an afternoon down the Tube, asks some London commuters what they feel about Europe … and gets a series of vox pop replies, all of them saying “Brexit! – we shall never surrender, we shall keep fighting, whatever the cost!

On his radio show Mark Kermode criticised this scene as unbelievable to the point of absurdity – and I totally agree with him. For me it actually hammered the last nail into the coffin of my verdict upon the film as a whole.

It’s always difficult to write a script in which real life history is involved – in the sense that the audience will already know not only the story but the outcome – and you are going to have to ‘create’ fictitious dialogue or scenes in order to get certain themes or issues across. I know because I’ve tried.

The truth is that a ‘dramatic licence’ doesn’t even get to first base as regards its goal when it just doesn’t come across as authentic or believable.


About Henry Elkins

A keen researcher of family ancestors, Henry will be reporting on the centenary of World War One. More Posts