The queue for the afternoon showing of Darkest Hour was made up of people who weren’t quite old enough to remember the events of the film. But I think they wanted to believe they were. Half a dozen places ahead of me, one woman clearly had no idea of the title of the film she was here to see and so stood dithering for some time trying to think which screen to choose. At last inspiration struck: “Churchill!” she declared in a glass-shattering yelp that must have been heard in France.
That’s what this is about: just old reliable Winston, the man half the population of Folkestone believes should still be leading the country. Darkest Hour is an entertaining enough film redeemed by a mesmerising performance from Gary Oldman under an ocean of prosthetic makeup. But that is precisely what bothers me about it.
This is the second film about Churchill I’ve seen in the last few months, after Brian Cox’s performance in Churchill.
This is the second film I’ve seen recently that climaxes with the “fight them on the beaches” speech, after Dunkirk.
This is the third film I’ve seen in less than a year that turns upon that invidious British myth of Dunkirk, after Dunkirk and Their Finest.
This is the fourth film I’ve seen in less than a year about plucky British wartime spirit, after Churchill and Dunkirk and Their Finest.
And I am getting very concerned about the mythmaking. I assume that the realities of film making mean that all of these films were at least conceived before the Brexit vote. But they are all Brexit films.
These are films about Britain standing alone, and of course being victorious in its isolation. This is Britain being better than, and better apart from, the rest of Europe. These are films about heroism being endemic in the character of ordinary Brits (the word “plucky” is inescapable here, even though in reality it hasn’t been used for decades). And here anyone who talks of negotiation, of talking to the rest of Europe (rather than the commands Churchill gives to his French counterpart) is a weaselly figure who’s the next best thing to a traitor (ie, Halifax in Darkest Hour – I have no particular brief for Halifax, but her is here made into a too-convenient antagonist).
Darkest Hour is full of cringingly bad moments, such as the penchant for beginning or ending key scenes by looking directly down from high overhead, or the idea that even after he was deposed Chamberlain held such power over the entire Parliamentary Conservative Party that he could dictate whether they cheer or remain silent. But the scene that almost had me laughing out loud was when Churchill took the tube. As the girl who showed him how to read the map told us, he was going only one stop. The scene that followed on the tube train was long enough to have travelled all the way around the Circle Line. He found himself in a carriage that was full of the sort of cheerful Cockney cliches that we all remember from far too many British films of the 40s and 50s. They were all polite and smiling and unfailingly bellicose, and the black man even completed Winston’s quotation from “Horatius at the Bridge”, because in 1940 every working class Londoner knew the works of Thomas Babington Macaulay by heart.
Both Darkest Hour and Churchill show Winston boldly taking difficult decisions that will cost lives. There’s a suggestion, pretty explicit in Darkest Hour, that this somehow redeems the tragedy of Gallipoli, because Winston was of course right all along. And such sacrifice is necessary and ultimately good for us. Wipe out the garrison at Calais in what is a pretty futile gesture, and we’re all better for it. And it’s right, of course, because doesn’t Dunkirk show us that even the most ordinary British Tommy will become Herculean for surviving that miserable experience. And doesn’t Their Finest show us that we crave the myth of Dunkirk, not any truth, because the myth makes us all happy and brave.
And don’t all of these films collectively show us that we are better off on our own, unattached to the rest of Europe. And though there may be hard times, the very fact that we’re British means we have grit and pluck and will come through stronger than ever. And anyway, eventually our good friends the Americans will turn up eventually and make it all right again. Yeah, sure!
None of these films is exactly great. Both Cox and Oldman put in remarkable performances as Churchill, Dunkirk has some pretty spectacular film making, and overall Their Finest has an unassuming levity that makes it easily my favourite of these films. But great, no, the message gets in the way of that.