Gary Oldman fights them on the beaches, never surrenders
But how much of the film is actually precise?
The new film about Winston Churchill’s devastating first weeks as prime minister in 1940, Darkest Hour, which opens in cinemas today, is winning critical plaudits for Gary Oldman’s stirring performance in the title role. But as with all such adaptations of history, from Wolf Hall to The Crown, there is a temptation to ask how much is actually true.
Was Churchill’s power really so diminished in 1940? Were he and the king really such good friends? And did he actually ride the Tube? So let’s attempt to sort the fact from the fiction.THE POLITICAL SCENARIOThe situation at Westminster in May 1940 as portrayed in the film seems too disastrous (and so too good for the screenwriter) to be true. A single man has been propelled to the leadership of his country despite huge suspicion within his own party and vicious criticism from key cabinet rivals.
The nation he leads faces the most ruthless, despicable and best-equipped enemy in history, and before he can even establish himself in office its only serious ally – France – has collapsed. Britain is next to be invaded, and he alone stands against this dreadful prospect.
True or false?
Utterly true. Though we look back and venerate Churchill today and assume he always had universal backing, that is simply not the case. Many Conservatives thought him an opportunist and wanted Lord Halifax instead. Even after he had become prime minister, Churchill still had to hold out against those – notably Halifax and Chamberlain – who wanted to sue for peace through Mussolini’s intermediaries.
As his grandson, Nicholas Soames, has said, the burden of resistance for the month of May 1940 was Churchill’s alone to bear: “Until the time that Lord Halifax and Chamberlain decided that there was to be no parlay with the Italians, I just can’t conceive of what he was carrying on his shoulders. I can’t conceive it.”
CHURCHILL’S RELATIONSHIP WITH THE KINGIn the film, George VI is an initially frosty presence who quickly warms up and even pays Churchill a consoling visit when the new prime minister is at rock bottom. The relationship between the two – the nods, winks and sly smiles of two men bound by position, authority and convention – is one of the uplifting charms of the movie. But is it right?True or false?
Not quite true. George VI, it is right to say, was no fan of Churchill, and very much hoped to send for Halifax after Chamberlain’s resignation. But the two actually had much in common, not least their upbringing by glamorous mothers and ill-tempered fathers. And they were both physically brave, having served in the Great War. By the end of the war there was certainly a feeling of mutual respect and fondness: there is a lovely letter from the king to Churchill banning him from accompanying the troops on D-Day, for example, lest he should be killed.
But the process of this odd couple’s developing relationship is greatly accelerated for the film’s purposes. So, while the scene of the king’s consoling visit makes artistic sense, it doesn’t make chronological sense.HIS RELATIONSHIP WITH CLEMENTINE
Actress Kristin Scott Thomas claims she lobbied to get Churchill’s wife Clemmie more screen time, such was her importance in his professional and personal life. The result is a tender portrait of a couple who find themselves at the pinnacle of public life at the time of its greatest crisis.True or false?
True. The loving relationship the pair shared is touching and right. “Je t’aime passionnement,” Clemmie wrote to Churchill in 1908. And yes, she did call him “Pig” (or sometimes “Pug”) while his pet name for her was “Cat”. But it is also true that his professional egotism devoured their family life, the cost of which Clemmie accurately describes in the film on the day her husband becomes PM.
Her influence on his working demeanour is also accurately depicted – he could be tyrannical with his staff, and she upbraided him for it, even writing him a letter telling him to mend his ways.THE COMMON TOUCHWas Sir Winston Leonard Spencer-Churchill, Knight of the Garter, Order of Merit, descendant of Marlborough, a man of the people? Of course not. Did he understand the people? That is a more delicate question, and one which the film attempts to answer with a quite bizarre scene in which the PM takes the Tube to Westminster and in one fateful stop is convinced that his fellow passengers – ordinary Brits – are determined never to surrender.
True or false?
Utter nonsense. Whatever you think of the artistic merits of this scene it has little to recommend it for accuracy. Its function is clear enough. This is director Joe Wright’s “night before Agincourt scene” – sending the king among his soldiers to measure their true mood. Except in this case there is no disguise, and the result is alarmingly artificial. As convincing as Dick van Dyke’s accent in Mary Poppins.
DETAILS, DETAILSPedants will doubtless find innumerable tiny errors of dress or scene setting. For example I’m sure that the painting hanging behind Churchill during one lunch with the king is Stubbs’ Whistlejacket – never at Buckingham Palace. But this is surely a nod to the fact that Wentworth Woodhouse, the Grade I listed house in Yorkshire, stood in for Buckingham Palace in filming – and just happens to be the original home of the painting. In any case, modest failings are overwhelmed by the delightful details that the film gets right.Take, for example, Churchill’s tap-tap- tapping on the arm of his chair in the Cabinet War Rooms, where he conducts a crucial showdown with Halifax. Go to the war rooms today and that chair is there behind glass. I have been behind that glass, and there, on the arm of that very chair, are the scratches from the tapping of his signet ring. That is the delight of the film’s focus on such a narrow period of time – the intensity of the detail rings out all the louder.– © The Daily Telegraph