Few figures have been explored in so many ways in British popular culture as Winston Churchill, to the point where Churchill often seems to have become a cipher for British popular culture itself. Nevertheless, 2017 was still a particularly challenging year to release a film about Churchill, just because John Lithgow had put in a well-nigh definitive portrait of him in The Crown, which not only provided scope and space for a more sustained characterisation of Churchill than had ever been committed to the big screen, but set a new standard for what a British period drama could look like. To some extent, the influence of The Crown is inescapable in Joe Wright’s film about Churchill on the eve of WWII, with several cast members making their way over from Peter Morgan’s series for bit parts and background roles here. Nevertheless, Gary Oldman portrays a very different Churchill from Lithgow, since whereas Lithgow’s Churchill is assured of his legacy, Oldman’s Churchill is poised at the most tempestuous and convulsive decision of his political career – namely, to reject Neville Chamberlain’s policy of appeasement and refuse to collaborate with Hitler.
More generally, however, Wright seems prescient that The Crown has done about as much as it is possible to do in terms of envisaging Churchill within a traditional realist framework. Instead, he embraces the enjoyable inanity of Churchilliana, making for a film that is often about Churchillian camp, and the legacy of Churchillian camp in British culture, than it is about Churchill himself. Long before we see Churchill in the film, we are treated to an array of synecdoches for his presence – a bowler hat, a boiled egg, a slice of bacon, a glass of whiskey – making it clear that his reputation and his image precedes him, and in some ways exceeds anything he can do to fully live up to it. Even when he does take centre stage, Wright periodically cuts away to interludes in which people are talking or gossiping about him, creating a slippage between Churchill and his image – a slippage that Churchill himself is quite aware of – that makes this quite a different experience from the melancholy stateliness of John Lithgow’s performance in The Crown, or indeed any other Churchill film.
In other words, Wright never presumes to offer Churchill as anything other than a caricature, while the historical specificity of the narrative is offset by Churchill’s knowing “references” to later films – such as The Godfather and Withnail & I – that make it clear that he is already partly occupying his posterity, and the cult status he accrued in later years. At moments, that makes him seem like a comic superhero, especially when he is matched with one of his trademark objects, making Oldman the perfect actor to play him in turn. Just as Churchill was a larger than life character, so Oldman is a larger than life actor, prepared to capture all the tensions of the era on Churchill’s face – and his own face – in a remarkably embodied and volatile performance. Time and again, Oldman has made it clear that he will ratchet up his theatrical presence to meet any occasion, which was also one of Churchill’s defining traits, at least as he is presented here, meaning that there’s a real synergy between actor and character in the way Wright organises the action. Certainly, there may have been more urgent candidates for Best Actor at the 2017 Academy Awards, so it’s not hard to see why there was a bit of a backlash when Darkest Hour took away the prize, but by the same token this is easily one of the best performances of Oldman’s career as well, and often feels like a companion piece to Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, with both films capturing the extremities of his range, and his capacity for both extroverted and introverted masterpieces of intensity.
If Oldman is the perfect actor for the part, then Wright is the perfect director, drawing on his theatrical credentials even more than in Anna Karenina to create a spectacle that is pure prosthetics – a tribute to the hamminess and creakiness of Churchill that knows just when to opt for beats and pauses, and just when to crank up the rhetorical swagger. Many of the most memorable scenes involve large crowds talking, especially in parliament, where Wright’s taste for aerial compositions and rotating sets captures the mechanics of Churchill’s charisma as a well-oiled machine. Throughout all these sequences, there’s a scatological, almost Swiftian delight in the vulgarity of political discourse as well, while Churchill’s genius lies in being able to massage this vulgarity without being consumed by it.
That’s not to say, however, that Darkest Hour is pure comedy, since the very theatrics of the film imbue it with an immediacy, plasticity and urgency that is frequently absent from period dramas in which the fact of WWII, and the outcome of the war, is presented as a fait accompli. Politically, the entire film revolves around the question of whether or not to go to war with Hitler, and whether or not to treat Hitler as an antagonist – something that’s nearly always taken for granted in WWII films as well, but which is reopened as a question here in quite a startling and remarkable way. Even more remarkable is that Churchill’s hostility towards Hitler is never presented as some great act of nobility, or as automatically conferring moral grandeur. In fact, Wright doesn’t ever present Churchill as a great strategiest, or even a terribly effective leader – just big-headed, erratic and charismatic enough to resist the rhetoric of common sense and capitalist realism that dictate forming an alliance with Hitler in the first place. As the film presents it, only a pig-headed outlier could insist on war when there was such a consensus for peace with Hitler, at least within parliament, meaning that, among other things, Darkest Hour viscerally captures the extent to which Churchill had to fight to prevent Chamberlain’s policy of appeasement continuing.
In the process, Churchill oscilates between moments of rhetorical brilliance and moments of profound ineloquence, but that combination is also what allows him to elude this rhetoric of common sense, along with the seamless and accomplished arguments for a Nazi alliance that are made by his fellow parliamentarians. As a result, a great deal of Oldman’s performance consists in capturing Churchill’s mumblings from one idea to the next, and the preverbal mannerisms – glottal and facial tics – that come to the surface when he is about to speak, or deciding whether or not to speak. For all that he can be quite rambunctious whenever he gets into a rhetorical groove, Oldman’s Churchill finds it quite hard to get into this groove to begin with, perpetually looking for the right time to begin a conversation, or finding himself shunned by the polite discourse of parliamentary democracy, even or especially as that discourse continually tries to bypass him to effect a rapid fascist alliance.
For all that it might be presented as a feel-good, crowd-pleaser, then, Darkest Hour is a slyly subversive take on one of Britain’s most beloved folk heroes. Whereas Churchill is typically presented as an emblem of good old-fashioned common sense, here he’s a line of flight from common sense – a reminder that common sense often ends in fascism, since it’s notable that Churchill is the sole character in the film who expresses any ideological repugnance with Nazism, rather than simply treating him from the framework of capitalism realism, as a problem to be managed or solved beyond the realm of ideology. And that makes Darkest Hour feel peculiarly attuned to the present, reimagining Churchill as a reminder that common sense and fascism can easily go hand in hand, and that fascism can often dress itself up as common sense, all the while enjoining the viewer to resist the new alliances being brokered with fascism, and the descendants of Nazism, in Britain today.