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Words winning a British battle

19 January 2018

Stephen Brown on Lord Halifax and Churchill in their screen personas


Gary Oldman as Winston Churchill in the fictitious scene in an Underground carriage in Darkest Hour

Gary Oldman as Winston Churchill in the fictitious scene in an Underground carriage in Darkest Hour

MAY 1940. An isolated Britain is at war. Darkest Hour (Cert. PG) presents absolute conflict between the determination of the Prime Minister, Winston Churchill, to fight on and the wish of the Foreign Secretary, Lord Halifax, to secure peace.

Darkest Hour takes several liberties with facts, the chief being that neither of these men was so entrenched in his position as shown. Spirited debates are not the same as the skulduggery depicted here. Nevertheless, the film skilfully, and at times movingly, lays out the enormous dilemma that faced our country.

Unlike some critics, I don’t feel that Anthony McCarten’s screenplay turns Halifax into a vampiric nemesis seeking to outmanoeuvre Churchill. What we have are good men trying to do what they see best for their country and the wider world. Early on, Churchill refers to the Foreign Secretary as “The Reverend Holy Fox”, but this is never followed up. Halifax was a devout Anglo-Catholic who, according to one biographer, believed that divine control limited what human beings could do to alter the course of events. Churchill, on the other hand, had no religious beliefs. God is like his father, he declares: “busy elsewhere”, the corollary being that we must do everything for ourselves.

Joe Wright’s film fails to demonstrate that their different starting-points could have significantly affected the outcome of war. Gary Oldman, behind a wealth of prosthetics and padding, plays up Churchill’s bluster for all he is worth. Stephen Dillane’s performance is more measured, emphasising Halifax’s ability to weigh up the situation astutely. Thus are we presented with personifications of Emotion and Reason. The ethical hub of Darkest Hour is whether to sacrifice 4000 British troops from Calais to divert the German advance while 300,000 personnel evacuate Dunkirk.

In the process of engaging with this bigger moral issue, one can excuse historical inaccuracies, such as Elizabeth Layton’s being the Prime Minister’s personal secretary (played by Lily James), whereas she wasn’t in post till 1941. More irritating was a soundtrack that, given the subject-matter, was bereft of an appropriate gravitas.

There are also moments that stretch credulity. In an entirely fictitious scene, Churchill boards a Tube train just one stop from Westminster. The journey time must have been snail’s pace; for, in a relatively long sequence, he asks fellow-travellers whether there should be a peace agreement with Germany or continued fighting. They resoundingly opt for the latter.

The PM subsequently uses this “focus group” to convince Parliament that it is the will of the people, no matter what “the elite” believe. I would like to think that this was an ironic parallel to the EU referendum or Donald Trump, but the film is not insightful enough for that. Ultimately, it is a war of words: who can be the more convincing. The real-life Churchill was, hands down, the victor, while Halifax was often convoluted and obscure.

Yet McCarten gives the aristocrat the last word, putting into his mouth a line that was originally that of the American journalist Ed Murrow. On listening to Churchill’s “We shall fight on the beaches” speech, Halifax makes a remark (one that could also apply to McCarten’s script): “He mobilised the English language and sent it into battle.”


Baptists Together and Damaris Media have released a companion booklet to the film, for church groups and individual Christians. It can be downloaded free of charge at www.baptist.org.uk/darkesthour.

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