There were two films about Winston Churchill released last year: Jonathan Teplitzky’s Churchill and Joe Wright’s Darkest Hour. I haven’t seen the former (starring Brian Cox), but Wright’s film doesn’t suggest any compelling reason for its own existence, besides the suspicion that if British cinema was to fail to produce a certain number of period dramas in a year, it would spontaneously combust. I cannot imagine this film adding to anyone’s understanding of Churchill, nor does it push us to think of him as anything less than a walking embodiment of the spirit of wartime England. It’s a harmless film, perhaps even toothless, about a man who was neither.

Darkest Hour covers the period from 9 May 1940, when Churchill (a transformed Gary Oldman) was appointed Prime Minister, to 28 May, on the eve of the evacuation of British soldiers from Dunkirk. At 66, Churchill has to deal with a hostile cabinet—including Viscount Halifax (Stephen Dillane) and Lord Chamberlain (Ronald Pickup)—a suspicious king, George VI (Ben Mendelsohn), in addition to his own past failures in Gallipoli and India, while trying to check the advancing Nazi forces. It’s like Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln, minus the diplomacy and with a lot more shouting from the central figure.

Using Churchill’s typist, Elizabeth Layton (Lily James), as a sort of audience proxy, the film treats Churchill’s drinking and near-constant bluster as adorable old-crank behaviour. There’s a musical comedy feel to the scenes where Churchill paces about with people trailing him which brings to mind The King’s Speech, another film about British leaders during World War II. Darkest Hour gives a reasonable account of the pressures the premier was under at the time, but Wright’s showy long takes and the dramatic stagey-ness of several scenes kept pulling me out of the narrative.

The film nosedives in the final stretch, with an appallingly sentimental sequence in which Churchill rides the London Underground and asks commuters what they’d do if the Germans reach their shores. Why, we’d fight, they say, with our broomsticks if necessary. This, in the film’s telling, is what gave Churchill the courage to continue with the Dunkirk plan he’d outlined, which he was wavering about before he boarded the train.

Oldman’s Churchill is a terrific imitation, and will probably get him his first Oscar, though I’ll probably remember him as the sphinx in Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy or the punk in Sid and Nancy. As for Wright, I’d take the unbroken five-minute tracking shot along the beach at Dunkirk in his Atonement over the rousing flatteries of Darkest Hour.

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