And that is what makes it so great a pity that the film-makers thought it necessary to include a wholly fictional scene in which the new Prime Minister, as he is being driven to Parliament, ducks out of his official car and into an Underground station in order to sound out ordinary Londoners about what they think he ought to do after the fall of France and before the extraction of the greater part of the British army from the beaches of Dunkirk. He does this at the urging of the King himself (Ben Mendelsohn), which makes it all the more absurd in my view, and as he was coming under pressure from his own party to arrive at some kind of accommodation with Herr Hitler.
This, too, gets the real-life story of Churchill’s leadership — and, indeed, leadership itself — the wrong way around. Not only did real-life Churchill never do anything of this kind, but if he had he would certainly not have encountered the kind of unanimity for fighting on that the film displays among ordinary people — including a happy, Macaulay-quoting black person whose presence here also jerks us for the moment out of the politics of London in 1940 and into those of Hollywood in 2017. Also in 1940, there would in all probability have been a majority for making a deal with Germany. It was precisely because Churchill, through the force of his own personality as a leader, supplied his country with the fighting spirit which had been lacking up until that point that we now remember him as a great man…
Movies about historical events always tell us more about the time in which they were made than they do about the time in which they are set. Though not intended and, so far as I know, hitherto unrecognized, there is an interesting parallel in Darkest Hour between the (fictional) Conservative-led government of 1940 and the (actual) Conservative-led government of today. See, for instance, the editorial in the Daily Telegraph headed: “The Tories don’t know what kind of Brexit they want. They aren’t showing real leadership.” The editorialist goes on to ask, rhetorically, “What is wrong with the UK Government? Where is its courage? The politics of the moment are complex, for sure, but Theresa May governs with the mandate of both a referendum and an election victory. If national consensus appears to be lacking, it is the job — the duty — of the Government to build one.”
That, as it happens, is exactly the job that the real-life Winston Churchill took on and succeeded at long before there seemed any realistic prospect of the victory that he promised in the great speech to Parliament that is the movie’s climax and that consensus ultimately led to. It is also the real reason why many still regard him as the greatest man of the 20th century. As a military leader his record was decidedly spotty, but as a political leader it was unparalleled. That Darkest Hour forgets this and instead portrays him as acting only after setting up an impromptu focus group in a railway carriage is, as the Telegraph editorial suggests, symptomatic of a larger cultural loss of memory as to just what real leadership involves — in a democratically governed country as much as in any other.