The advance ‘buzz’ about Gary Oldman’s upcoming Oscar for Best Actor began months ago. Long before anyone had actually seen the film! One could easily be cynical about the films which land in the Oscar spotlight, and the films which don’t; and that’s an ongoing issue, year after year. What interested me about this, was the sharp contrast between the euphoric reception for Oldman’s Churchill in Darkest Hour and the complete absence of same for Brian Cox’s Churchill in, well, Churchill.
Then there is the whole question of why, suddenly, Churchill has appeared as a presence in popular culture, both on the big screen and on the small. I fear this may have something to do with the present political and social atmosphere, which involves a revisionist view of both the war and of Britain. The zeitgeist of Britain in the twenty-teens, is inextricably interwoven with a mythologised vision of Britain in the nineteen forties.
Darkest Hour begins with the image we all have of the war (if we weren’t actually there), which is that of black and white archival footage. Director Joe Wright doesn’t indulge in the recent fashion for digitally colouring and enhancing WW2 footage to make it more vibrant, more compelling. No, Darkest Hour is a very traditional film, espousing a very old-fashioned vision of the war and, therefore, the archive footage needs to reflect this.
|On the left, Ronald Pickup carries the burden of failure - as yesterday's man, Neville Chamberlain. On the right, the real Chamberlain carries the piece of paper he believed signalled 'peace for our time'.|
The film creates an air of verisimilitude by having its actors look as much as possible like the historical characters they are portraying. This is particularly noticeable with Ronald Pickup’s Neville Chamberlain, Stephen Dillane’s Lord Halifax and, of course, with Oldman’s Churchill. Wright has said that the decision was made to go with prosthetics because Oldman is too old to safely put on the weight that the role would need. He’s twelve years younger than Cox, who did put weight on; although, admittedly, he’s a burly fella, so he wouldn’t have needed to put as much on.
Reputedly, Oldman requested Kazuhiro Tsuji be dragged kicking and screaming out of retirement to do the make-up. One assumes this will have been inspired by the extraordinary job Tsuji did on Oldman’s old mucka, Tim Roth, in the otherwise reviled Tim Burton version of Planet of the Apes (2001). Tsuji will be glad he did since he’s obviously going to take an Oscar back into retirement with him.
It’s interesting that, when Anthony Hopkins donned a similarly impressive prosthetic skin for Hitchcock in 2012, he was ignored by the Academy. Howard Berger, who executed the make-up, wasn’t - he at least got a nomination - but Hopkins’ performance within that makeup was snubbed. I suspect this had more to do with Hitchcock’s reputation in Hollywood than with the actual film itself, which was really rather a sentimental and affectionate tribute to the old man.
Hitchcock found itself competing against another biopic, set a few years later, featuring an altogether less sympathetic portrayal of Hitch, namely The Girl with Toby Jones as Hitch (also released in 2012). Curiously - this is also true of Darkest Hour, since Churchill (the film) concerns itself with events three years after those seen in the Oldman version, and Cox’s performance as Churchill (the man) is less sentimental and sympathetic.
|The real Hitchcock, the real Toby Jones as Hitchcock and the real Anthony Hopkins under a ton of prosthetics, also as Hitchcock. The crow plays himself throughout.|
Like a Shakespearean hero - Churchill is introduced to us through the words of others, before he takes the stage. Before they elevate him to the position of Prime Minister (he was never democratically elected) we learn that he is a controversial figure, referred to as ‘an actor in love with the sound of his own voice’, but one who may, despite all that, unite the parties at a time when the losses in Europe and the mismanagement of the war, threaten to tear parliament (and the country) asunder.
When King George (Ben Mendelsohn) hears of Churchill’s appointment, he rattles off a litany of the man’s past failings. And he does this with his famous speech impediment. Interestingly, most of the key players have a slight problem with speech. The King, famously, does. Halifax does. Churchill, of course, does. It’s almost like the film-makers are subtly pointing out the inbred weaknesses of the aristocracy. But the film is, otherwise, so unquestioning of their authority, that I can’t see this reflected anywhere else in the film.
Darkest Hour trades in stereotypes. When Churchy looks at real people out of his car window, there are really only three types out there - women, business men in trilby hats and labourers in flat caps. That’s it. London reduced to a limited choice of headwear. (The Blitz hadn’t started, so they weren’t wearing their tin hats yet).
That simplistic vision runs through the film, which knows the events and the characters it deals with are iconic - so treats them with a great deal of reverence.
Yes, Halifax is conspiring, behind the scenes, to orchestrate Churchill’s downfall - By allowing him to take the reins of power - with the understanding that he’ll step into the limelight and save the day after Churchill fails. That may seem like a revelation to those who think there was unquestioning unanimity within Parliament to Churchill’s premiership, but that wound be to forget the real urge to appeasement that existed amongst a lot of the aristocracy who, let’s face it, didn’t profoundly disagree with Hitler’s goals at that early point in the war. It’s also worth mentioning that such Machiavellian machinations are standard operating procedure for Tory ministers, then as now. Witness the knives sticking out of Theresa May’s back every time she emerges from Number 10 to make a public pronouncement.
|Left: Edward Woods - the Earl of Halifax. Right: Stephen Dillane as same. The Michael Gove of his day - a conviction politician who unswervingly believes whatever is in his own best interest.|
Thing is, there was no will to continue the war at this point - even the most wildly optimistic person couldn’t see any way that our boys - stranded there on the Dunkirk beaches - could survive and make it home. But, putting these perfectly reasonable doubts in the mouth of the self-serving, twitchy and patently untrustworthy Halifax, feeds into the myth of the war - that everyone but cowards and traitors were ready for the fight.
I was interested by the similarities between these two films, as well as by their differences. Both Darkest Hour and Churchill show us the old man’s eccentric mannerisms and thought processes through the POV of his secretary - in Darkest Hour it’s the historical character Elizabeth Layton (played by Lily James), in Churchill it’s her fictional equivalent, Helen Garrett (played by Ella Purnell).
We see Churchill’s bombast from this perspective - his eccentricities, such as working in bed, wandering around in his underwear or less, and his sense of humour. In Darkest Hour, these scenes are designed to make him endearing; but his sense of humour is both cruel and unashamedly egotistical; and his habit of refusing to call things by their given name, is just an extension of his drive to control and manipulate those around him.
Churchill (the film) is set four years after Darkest Hour, when the Allies (now America has joined in) are poised to storm the beaches of Normandy, and retake the Europe we lost four years before - with the withdrawal from Dunkirk.
Cox’s Churchill (the man) is physically older, wearier, more worn down by four years of leadership. As the film begins, he stands on the beach and looks out at the sea, the tide that washes around his feet is red. He is awash with doubt and fear, as he remembers the last time he authorised a full-frontal assault on a beach. That was Gallipoli and the death-toll of that WW1 catastrophe haunts him still. The first war is a ghost the haunts the shadows of the second. This version of Churchill (the man) is more complex, more conflicted than Oldman’s and, therefore, his refusal to bend to the will of others seems more like wilful stubbornness than stoical heroism.
Although every bit as eccentric as the Oldman version (he is discovered lying on the floor in his nightshirt, rehearsing a speech), Cox doesn’t bring out the whimsy of this. His humour is colder and more sarcastic, less reliant on him playing the underdog. this shows Churchill’s mannered eccentricities for what they likely were: self defence.
|Clemmie and Winnie - in the flesh and in the persons of Miranda Richardson and Brian Cox.|
The way the two films depict Churchill’s wife, the long-suffering Clementine, is interesting. They have both gone to the trouble of making Kristin Scott-Thomas (in Darkest Hour) and Miranda Richardson (in Churchill) look the part. Both versions of Clemmie are fully aware that they are of secondary importance in The Great Man’s life to his work ... The difference is that Richardson’s version isn’t happy about it.
One wonders when someone is going to make a film about Clementine Churchill, who had a life of no small consequence before meeting Churchill, and continued to do so after his death. She was so much more than the woman behind the great man. You just don’t get much of that in either of these films.
In her first decent speech, Thomas’ Clemmie details how content she and the children are to be of secondary importance to Churchill’s ‘public life’. Richardson’s Clemmie rails against this. Interestingly, they both have moments of introspection when they look in their dressing-table mirror. In both cases, their affection for the old man is undimmed, but I just found it more credible in Churchill, where Richardson’s Clemmie is not unquestioning of her role. But, as I have mentioned, Darkest Hour espouses a more traditional vision of the past, a time when women knew their place and accepted it without complaint! Y’know, those good old days ... the ones that never really existed.
|However different their presentation of Clemmie is, the one thing both films agree on is just how dependent the Great Man was on her, and just how special their relationship was.|
Another supporting role, for me, where Churchill won out, was in its depiction of King George. In Darkest Hour, he’s played by Ben Mendelsohn, with rigid restraint. Halifax has his ear and has successfully poisoned the King’s opinion of Churchill. Then, quite out of the blue, the King changes his mind and offers the old man his unconditional support. I didn’t feel that this change of heart was warranted. In Churchill (the film), the king is played, surprisingly, by James Purefoy (taking a break from the sweaty, southern TV series Hap and Leonard), whose delicate under-performance makes him man of the match for me. His appeal to Churchill to see sense and not go to go haring off to France with Montgomery, is the turning point for the old man, just as the King’s support is in Darkest Hour, but here it feels earned and not artificial. It’s also the best and most moving speech in the film.
The main difference between the two films, however, is The Americans. They are a very real presence in Churchill (the film), and a conspicuous absence in Darkest Hour.
The only American in Darkest Hour, is President Roosevelt (played by David Strathairn, who literally phones in his performance ... ahem). Churchill phones him up and, essentially, begs for help, which Roosevelt apologetically refuses to offer. It’s been forgotten in the post-war haze of the ‘special relationship’ that - prior to being attacked and becoming actively involved - Americans refused to take sides in WW2 and, instead, they used it as a chance to get Britain massively into their debt.
In his fascinating book, The Myth of the Blitz, Angus Calder explains that, by 1941, the war had bankrupted Britain. In order to build the weapons we needed, we were buying massive amounts of raw materials from the USA, the only country which would and could supply us. As Calder says: “The Chancellor of the Exchequer calculated that Britain would exhaust its gold and dollar reserves by December 1940, then go bankrupt.”
In order for this to continue, then, the Americans formulated The Lend Lease Act; which granted us massive supplies throughout the remainder of the war - everything from eggs to warships - at massive discounts (we paid only 10% of the estimated value). Never-the-less, by the end of the war, we owed America over a billion dollars and it took us to 2006 to pay it back.
So, the basis of the ‘special relationship’, in reality, was the shift of world power from Britain to America, since they had our IOU. There is no denying that the path of the war would have been very different without the involvement of America, but the abiding myth of the war is that they came on their white chargers to save the day because it was the right and noble thing to do when, in reality, they were just protecting their investment.
So, this puts a rather different complexion on Churchill’s ranted assertion that “you can’t reason with a tiger when your head is in its mouth”. He was referring to the German tiger but, in reality, the American tiger was applying just as much pressure - in a different way.
|Lit and shot beautifully by Bruno Debonnel, the war room scenes, particularly, have the feel of a Pre-Raphaelite painting, which only serves to amplify the romanticised vision of the past the film offers.|
The visuals of Darkest Hour are wonderfully, moody. Harsh-lit, narrow-faced men sitting in pools of cold light, discussing capitulation to the German war machine. Many of the scenes in the war rooms have a lush, painterly quality to them. There’s been some lovely work done by cinematographer Bruno Debonnel.
The performances are utterly convincing. The script by Anthony McCarten is, however, manipulative and unashamedly sentimental - like his previous award-garlanded movie The Theory of Everything (2014). That wasn’t to my taste, either; but it was very much to America’s taste, which is why the film became such a hit and Eddie Redmayne ended up going home from the Oscars with a statue. McCarten has succeeded in striking twice with his version of this oft-told tale, as he plays all the stereotypical ‘Brit’ cards those Americans love. A heritage setting, a British protagonist they’ve heard of, a personal mountain to climb, and a smattering of physical disability for good measure.
Ironic that this film does so much to appease an American audience, and yet it shows Churchill having so little success in his own attempts to appease the Americans. After he fails in begging Roosevelt for aid, Churchill is seen isolated, literally in a box of a room, surrounded by impenetrable black. This is a technique used earlier, when he is alone in his elevator, a small figure plunging through inky blackness.
This is a rather on-the-nail visual metaphor for Britain’s isolation in its literal and metaphorical darkest hour. It also led me to the realisation that I wasn’t really watching a film. The way this is staged - mostly involving men sitting round tables talking and looking at maps - this is more of a stage play than a film. We get one or two effects shots as the maps coming alive so that we can see glimpses of the actual war - the bombs falling - a moment to appreciate the human cost of the decisions being made in the war-rooms below Whitehall. We even get to see the flotilla of ‘little ships’ heading for Dunkirk ... Which is more than we did in the film Dunkirk (2017). But, mostly, it’s just men in gloomy rooms, talking.
And here, in the gloom, knowing that Britain is alone, waiting to hear the reports from Dunkirk, waiting to know if Britain still has an army, Churchill experiences his own darkest hour, his moment of self doubt. It is here when Oldman’s performance shines. The only bit of him you can see under all that silicone, is the eyes - which he uses mercilessly, to let the human being leak out of the monster, to show the doubt and the pain and the childishness of the man in ways that dialogue and action can’t. It is a remarkable synthesis of prosthetic and performance, the one bringing the best out in the other.
|Churchill (the man) addresses the nation. In the harsh, stylised lighting of Darkest Hour, at the top and, below, in the more naturalistic - but grander - setting of Churchill (the film).|
The one time Churchill slips the leash and escapes from the dark rooms - is to go to, ironically, a different type of subterranean space. This is the point where the film deviates most significantly from the facts - when Churchill takes a trip on the Tube to canvas the opinions of some ‘real people’. Churchill was not a man of the people. It is actually out of character for him to ‘focus group’ the opinions of those who are most affected by his decisions. But it is an essential part of the mythical version of Churchill that they are creating for this film.
A carefully diverse cross-section of Londoners share a carriage with him and, to a man and a woman, tell him to never surrender. This is what would come to be known as ‘The Blitz Spirit’, the indomitable British refusal to back down. This myth - for myth it is - sustained Britain during the long hard years of the war. It kept us resolute when capitulation and despair were the more obvious responses. It is, unfortunately, also the myth which informs ‘Brexit’ and the vexed question of Britain’s participation in Europe some 70 years after peace was won.
It’s worth mentioning Brexit now, because these depictions of events 70 years ago, are feeding into the understanding of events happening today. Last summer’s Dunkirk showed Britain desperately fleeing Europe from the perspective of the men on the ground. Darkest Hour shows it from the perspective of the old men in Whitehall. Both films show it as an unambiguously great and noble endeavour. It serves the present government’s purpose to have those stories told now, to evoke that myth at a time of national crisis - when the country is divided almost 50/50 over the Brexit question - just as Churchill evoked the myth of Camelot when he was delivering the ‘we shall fight them on the beaches’ speech, that Oldman gets to deliver at the film’s crescendo.
I’m not suggesting that Christopher Nolan and Joe Wright dashed their films together just so they could present a unified front, wrapped in the union jack, in time to play to the Tory Party Conference. Films take too long to write, finance and make for that to be the case. But it is an interesting moment in the national zeitgeist that this story is getting revisited now, and is receiving so much press coverage.
In Churchill (the film) the dilemma is a different one. The old man feels that he (and Britain) has lost control of the war and is now very much at the behest of the Americans. It is the beginning of the American Imperialism that characterised the second half of the century. It depicts a Britain that is totally dependent upon the largesse of America. I fear that this may, in its own way, be a vision of Britain after Brexit, when we are no longer allied with Europe and are, instead, laid open to American economic predation. But that’s not a story the nation wants to hear right now.
I must confess that, despite my raging cynicism over Darkest Night, and my awareness of how fast and loose they were playing with the facts, that scene on the Tube train, where they quote The Lays of Ancient Rome at each other, was genuinely and deeply moving. And that’s not down to the writing which is, frankly, cheesy; it’s not down to the cinematography or the supporting cast; it’s all down to Oldman and those eyes.
Oldman is practically guaranteed to receive his Oscar for this role - just as John Lithgow won several awards for his version of Churchill in Netflix’s show The Crown (2016) - just as Brendan Gleeson received his Golden Globe for his portrayal in the TV move Into the Storm in 2009 - and just as Albert Finney did in the companion to that film - 2002’s The Gathering Storm. Basically, people win awards for playing Churchill.
Which understanding left me wondering why Cox’s version had been ignored. I’m forced to conclude that it has more to do with the cult of personality that surrounds Churchill (the man) - which Churchill (the film) undermines.
|Churchill (the film) uses its icons more thoughtfully. The 'V Sign' is a bitter, hollow gesture now, offered purely to amuse children. Churchill (the man) no longer believes in the indomitability of himself nor of his leadership.|
Churchill (the film) more fully explores the turmoil in the heart of Churchill (the man) as he finds himself literally praying that Operation Overlord - the name for the invasion of Normandy - doesn’t go ahead. Rather like the Tube scene in Darkest Hour, this is a fabrication of the film-makers; but, unlike the Tube scene, it isn’t a moment of mythopoeia, but rather a demonstration of how out of step, how stubbornly, pig-headedly wrong the old man had become. Director Jonathan Teplitzky is simply not currying the audience’s favour, as Joe Wright does.
If Oldman’s Churchill is the perfect film for the year of Brexit; Cox’s Churchill is perfect for the year of Trump. It shows his fiery temper, his vanity, his scheming and, above all, his unfettered raging ego. This is not the damp-eyed sentimentalised Oldman Churchill, and that is a problem, because this unvarnished vision of Churchill (the man) is less sympathetic and, therefore, less engaging.
There is a suspicion that runs through Oldman’s performance in Darkest Hour - that he was trying to get his Oscar. Very much as there was, for example, through DiCaprio’s performance in The Wolf of Wall Street (2013) and The Revenant (2015), that he had his eyes so firmly fixed firmly on the prize that it shows through in the performance and informs the creative decisions made. That wasn’t the case with his George Smiley in Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy (2011), which earned him his last Oscar nomination. That distraction is completely absent in Cox’s performance - He just wants to tell the story.
So, while the two films inevitably have much in common, what sets them apart is what makes them interesting. Darkest Hour is a visually sumptuous piece of work, with uniformly excellent performances, but it story suffers for being overly-familiar and uncritical. It is a puff-piece designed to attract the eye of the American critics and awards bodies and, as such, it has proven phenomenally successful.
Churchill (the film) is a more uneven piece, visually less stylised, which shows the old man as less invulnerable, less endearing. It is also more generous to the characters surrounding Churchill - particularly Clemmie. But, ultimately, this film didn’t catch the zeitgeist like Darkest Hour did, because it isn’t about leaving Europe, it’s about the fight to get back in. That’s not a story we want to see right now.
Churchill (the film): Darkest Hour:
Dir: Jonathan Teplitzky Dir: Joe Wright
Script: Alex von Tunzelmann Script: Anthony McCarten
Dur: 98mins Dur: 125mins
Cert: PG Cert: PG