An atmospheric and contained biopic, Darkest Hour takes place over a few weeks in May 1940 with an embattled Churchill besieged by his party while Nazi forces roll across western Europe. Gary Oldman moves beyond caricature playing one of the 20th century’s most recognisable characters, and the always brilliant Ben Mendelsohn tempers his usual menace as a nervy George VI. History buffs will find Darkest Hour a useful companion piece to Dunkirk, but the film offers a lot to the political tragics among us.
While Oldman rightly owns the picture, parliament itself is a leading character in Darkest Hour. The atmosphere in the House of Commons is mostly dark, with the outside world shooting through only occasionally to light the smoky, dusty air. You can practically choke on the dust motes.
And it’s not just the atmosphere that evokes another time. The customs, quirks and characters of parliament are also captured with charm. In the parliamentary scenes, we see members waving paper in furious agreement, while a key point of suspense comes from the members awaiting a handkerchief signal from outgoing prime minister Neville Chamberlain before they can applaud. (No, we won’t spoil it for you).
And while it can seem old-worldly, the arcane nature of parliament has changed very little since Churchill’s day.
After all, the government and opposition benches are still two sword lengths apart (to discourage swordplay as a means of dispute resolution). And there are still sword hooks in the members’ cloak room. There is also an official snuff box at the entrance to the chamber, it having been decided that snorting tobacco was preferable to it some time after 1694. There was a public uproar about taxpayer funds being used to top up the snuff box a few years ago, although apparently the Principal Doorkeeper purchases the snuff at his or her own expense. Phew.
And in Australia, we’re not immune to these arcane rituals and pomp. For example, we still have thrones in our chambers. The “vice-regal throne” is for governors and governors-general to preside over parliament. The most ornate throne resides in Victoria, whose parliament was built in the flush of the gold rush. It is carved from Australian cedar and upholstered in maroon buttoned velvet, and features ornate carvings of the symbols of the British monarchy — the crown, the unicorn and Royal Lion.
There’s also the usher of the rod in our Senate – basically the concierge who escorts the president in and out of the chamber, takes the role and passes messages. All while carrying a huge black stick. The black rod in the federal Senate is 1.37 metres long, headed by a silver crown above the Australian coat of arms and was remade in ebony for the opening of New Parliament House (can we still call it that?) in 1998. Not all states have a black rod that fancy. In fact, in the early part of the 20th century, the Western Australian Parliament was short of an ornate rod, and ingeniously improvised by painting a pool cue black. They’ve since upped their rod game.