Cometh the hour, cometh the man
Gary Oldman plays Winston Churchill in absorbing portrayal of divisive prime minister
12 January, 2018 — By Dan Carrier
Gary Oldman as Winston Churchill in Darkest Hour
Directed by Joe Wright
LET us start by considering Darkest Hour with historian Eric Hobsbawm’s take on the situation it tackles.
“Compromise and negotiation with Hitler’s Germany were impossible, because the policy objectives of National Socialism were irrational and unlimited,” he wrote in his book The Age of Extremes.
“Expansion and aggression were built into the system and, short of accepting German domination in advance, war was unavoidable.
“Those who recognised that there could be no compromise with Hitler … did so for entirely unpragmatic reasons. They regarded fascism as intolerable on principle and a priori, or, as in the case of Winston Churchill, they were driven by an equally a priori idea of what their country and Empire ‘stood for’ and could not sacrifice. The paradox of Churchill was that this great romantic, whose political judgment had been almost consistently wrong on every matter since 1914 … was realistic on the one question of Germany.”
Wright’s film considers the crisis of government when Churchill took over from Neville Chamberlain in 1940. It shows how Churchill was – and remains – a divisive figure. The left saw a political record before 1940 that included promoting the bombing of civilians in Iraq, oppressing Indian populations, aggression towards trade unions.
On the right, he was loathed for quitting the Tory whip and joining the Liberals. He shouldered the blame for the disaster at Gallipoli and for Britain leaving the Gold Standard.
Yet, as this film shows, unlike many of his Tory counterparts, he believed Britain had a moral duty to stand up to the Nazis. He rallied the country in its darkest hour. When that hour came, he was the right person for the job.
We join Churchill (Gary Oldman) in May 1940. Hitler’s forces are poised to sweep into France and destroy Britain’s entire professional army.
At home, time is up for Neville Chamberlain (Ronald Pickup). He knows he must be removed so a coalition government can come in. The candidate the Labour Party will support is Churchill.
His will to never surrender is not popular among those who still hoped to barter with Hitler.
Wright does not paint flawless characters. Churchill’s foibles lace every scene with humour and realism: this is a most un-Churchillian Churchill.
Churchill has been played by many actors: Brendan Gleeson, Timothy Spall, Michael Gambon – but there is something more enchanting about Oldman’s version. He is a slob, a drunkard, unthinking, but inside is a man of huge intellect and it means he is also willing to listen, to change tack. This complexity makes Oldman’s Churchill ring true. He is neither a tactical genius nor 100 per cent sure of himself. He might be a splendid orator, but he doesn’t always know what he is going to say.
Darkest Hour is absorbing – particularly as we face another crisis in Europe whose roots can be found in xenophobic cliques who sound like Moselyites. What would Churchill say?