Rachel McLean

Author of Twisted Realities

Darkest Hour: Anatomy of a Great Political Drama

Every now and then, I watch a movie that teaches me all about writing and how it can be done really well. In this post, I examine how the  movie Darkest Hour does just that.

A couple of weeks ago, I took my son to see Darkest Hour, the new drama about Winston Churchill’s struggle for power on becoming Prime Minister in 1940.

It’s set against the backdrop of the British defeat at Dunkirk and the fact that at that point, it looked as if Hitler would win the war imminently.

My son had a mixed response to it; his words were, “except for being boring, I thought it was good.” Remember that this is a 13 year-old for whom the release of Black Panther and Solo: A Star Wars Story are the most exciting events of this year. But he does appreciate a good film and enjoys dissecting them with me afterwards. The people around us must think we’re mad, talking about pinch points and climaxes as we leave a film.

I, on the other hand, wasn’t bored in the slightest. It helped that I knew the history and the characters (for example my son didn’t know who Neville Chamberlain was, which would hinder enjoyment of this film), and that I’m a politics geek. I loved it.

As I’m working on a trilogy of political thrillers right now, I knew that there was lots in this movie I could learn from. So I went back to the cinema yesterday, notebook at the ready, and watched it again. I love my job!

Here, without revealing any spoilers you won’t already know (I don’t need to hide who won the war, right?), I’m going to tell you what I believe worked so well about the film. This all applies to novels and to any story form, which is why it was so useful to me.

The Characters

With a character as well-known and eccentric as Winston Churchill, the filmmakers already had an advantage. But it’s very easy to descend into cliche. And what I thought was risky casting – Gary Oldman, who you might know from Harry Potter or Dracula – turned out not to be. For the first five minutes, he was Gary Oldman. For the rest of the film, he was 100% Churchill.

But it wasn’t just Churchill who was an interesting character. The two most interesting supporting roles, in my view, were taken by women. Lily James played Miss Layton, Churchill’s new secretary who initially resigns after he’s rude and ill-tempered towards her. Her changing response to him reinforces the character arc that Churchill goes through and demonstrates why he was so respected, when people weren’t busy being baffled by him. And his wife Clem, played by a surprising old looking Kristin Scott Thomas, reappears repeatedly to show us his softer, more vulnerable side and reassure him when he starts to doubt himself.

There are also the backstabbing plotters of the Tory party. Neville Chamberlain was portrayed a bit one-dimensionally, I thought. I can’t believe that the real man can have been quite so weak-willed; surely he had the vestige of a spine? Or maybe I’m wrong. Lord Halifax was an opportunistic, scheming would-be rival whom Churchill managed to outwit, and Anthony Eden was a voice of calm among all this. They all altered their view of Churchill by the end, except perhaps for the blinkered Halifax, and saw that he was more competent than they’d imagined.

Outside all this, but also heavily involved in the progression of the story, is King George VI, who at first is wary of Churchill and admits ‘you scare me’, but then offers his unqualified support in opposition to his old family friend Lord Halifax.

The Structure

I’ve been thinking a lot about story structure lately – planning a trilogy is tricky, from a structural point of view, and entails a lot of post-it notes laid out on desks. So I was interested to see what worked so well about it here.

The first technique used to great effect was mirroring the structure of the beginning and end of the film. The film opens in the Commons Chamber, with Labour leader Clement Atlee attacking the current Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain and demanding his resignation. And the final scene was again in the Chamber for Churchill’s victory over his political opponents, and the beginning of his military one too. I found myself mouthing along with him: ‘We shall fight them on the beaches,’ and all that. Rousing stuff, delivered superbly by Oldman.

The structure wasn’t just mirrored there. The second scene of the film was at Churchill’s home, where we got to see just how eccentric and difficult he was – and how much he drank. He snapped at staff, yelled at his new secretary, and said ‘Keep Buggering On’ to his son over the phone (and there was me thinking that was made up for Doctor Who). This was mirrored by a sequence of scenes at the end of the film, before the speech, where he acts very differently around other people. He escapes from his Prime Ministerial car to take the tube and interact with the public (‘all babies look like me’), makes an ex tempore speech to backbench MPs at the House of Commons telling them that they should ‘rise up and slam me down’ if he doesn’t stand up to Hitler, and gains the trust and respect of Miss Layton, who tells him ‘no-one can put words together like you.’

And the overall structure is clear and effective. The First Act sets the scene, taking us up to the point where we descend in the lift to the War Cabinet Rooms below Downing Street. It’s common for films to move to a new location at this stage, and Darkest Hour certainly does. The Second Act has its central turning point, when Churchill realises he can’t rely on the French or Americans and orders Operation Dynamo, in which the ‘Little Ships’ evacuated Dunkirk. And it ends with things very bleak indeed: Belguim has surrendered, France is about to do so, and it looks like there’s no option but for Britain to enter talks, brokered by Mussolini of all people.

But Churchill doesn’t give up. In the Third Act he leaves the underground bunker behind and comes to the surface of wartime London, escaping for that tube ride, seeing how determined the ‘great British public’ are, and finally making that speech. At the very end, Chamberlain indicates his support by dabbing his forehead with his handkerchief and the Tory backbenchers rise in support for their leader. This nicely mirror Churchill’s first speech as PM at the end of the first act, where Chamberlain puts his hanky back in his pocket and no-one on the government benches makes a sound.

The Use of Lighting

Light and colour are used to dramatic effect.

The film as a whole is dimly lit, with the only real exception being scenes set in Churchill’s house and, to a lesser extent, in Downing Street. Scenes in the Commons or the War Rooms are very dark. Things brighten up, too, when Churchill goes AWOL; even on the tube things are brighter than in the Commons Chamber, it seems. And the scene with the backbench MPs is brightly lit, with clear daylight. In fact, the presence or absence of daylight is a recurring theme, and reflects the mood at different points in the story.

The filmmakers use a spotlight in the Commons Chamber to highlight first Atlee in the opening scene then Churchill in the closing one. It’s designed to look as if it’s coming from a high window. The Commons Chamber doesn’t actually have any high windows, much less just one directed right at the dispatch box – but the effect works, because it highlights the pressure on these men at this point and who is in the ascendancy.

Colour is also used to emphasise mood. The most humorous scenes, in which we are learning about Churchill’s character, have colour; he wears a set of pink pyjamas, for example. But the scenes in the Commons are all but monochrome and most in the war rooms are too, especially in the room where war cabinet meetings take place. If Chamberlain’s in the scene, things are going to be dark and colourless.

The Dialogue and Humour

Again, here it would be easy to descend into cliche. The film does succumb to it once, with that line on the tube about babies. But humour is used to great effect to shine a light on Churchill’s personality, his disdain for convention and his occasional self awareness.

The dialogue between Churchill and King George is brief but shows us the change in their relationship in a just a few short scenes. We start with Churchill refusing to be deferent: ‘Sir, I simply cannot imagine why.’ It shifts in the middle of the film to a candid scene over lunch in which Churchill sneaks food to a corgi (always a good move) and the two men open up little about their past. Churchill tells the king, ‘My father was like God: busy elsewhere.’ Rather like himself, the viewer thinks. And then there’s an (oddly set, imho) scene in a bleak bedroom at Number 10 in which the king appears when things are at their worst and tells Churchill, ‘you have my support,’ even though this means betraying his old friend Halifax. He also tells Churchill to ‘go to the people…they will instruct you.’ Without the option of focus groups or opinion polls, Churchill takes the tube instead. For me wasn’t one of the strongest scenes (there was some glaring racial tokenism, for example), but it did the job of building us up to the climactic speech.

My Verdict

If you’re still reading this, then you’re either a politics geek like me, or a fan of movie and story structure (also like me). If you haven’t seen Darkest Hour yet, I thoroughly recommend it. Even if you don’t sit on the back row on a Thursday morning scribbling in a notebook, I’m sure you’ll enjoy it!

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