A career-defining, triumphant performance.
There’s been two Churchill movies in the past 7 months; Churchill and now, Darkest Hour. While Churchill, headed up by a serviceable Brian Cox, has made next to no noise since its release, Darkest Hour is a thundering awards contender – the prime reason? Gary Oldman, an indisputably legendary actor who in his remarkable career across an array of iconic roles, some more Sirius than others, has only been awarded the courtesy of a single Oscar nomination (2012’s Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy). His flexibility and versatility as a performer are on full display in Darkest Hour, in a career-defining portrayal of historic proportions.
It’s May 1940; While Hitler’s army is obliterating Europe, Britain’s lack of faith in current PM Neville Chamberlain leads to a reappointment – Winston Churchill. As he soldiers on towards a fight, pressure mounts on him to head towards peace instead.
The key event at the centre of the drama of this biopic is the Dunkirk rescue, in which 300,000 British men were stranded on French shores, famously dubbed a ‘military disaster’. It sounds familiar because Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk is about the very same thing, but Joe Wright doesn’t try to show a pedigree for the art of war – this serves as a no-frills companion piece, more of a straight history lesson than a cinematic experience. That doesn’t mean Wright doesn’t show any flair – the exquisite direction throughout is outstanding considering the overwhelming grey which is painted over the film. Scenes in which a solemn-minded Churchill, amidst the hazy red glow of the ‘on-air’ bulb, or an entire 20 second stretch in which he and his assistant (played by an enthusiastic Lily James) sit in silence, or when he travels in an darkness-smothered elevator in a staggeringly poetic shot all carry a visual impact, and it doesn’t go unnoticed.
It’s a thoroughly interior drama, but that’s because the focus isn’t on the surroundings – it’s a centrepiece film with Gary Oldman as our core. This performance will forever be attached to the mention of his career – it’s electric watch and a wonder to behold. Aside from the eyes, you honestly couldn’t tell he was an actor. From firm grasp on the power of English to his second-guessing deliberations and self doubt, from his furious temper to his hidden kindness and dark wit for the profane, Oldman embodies everything that made Churchill the man he was. Capturing a person is one thing, but letting yourself fade away is another – a truly accomplished performance.
That’s not to say the other cast members aren’t on fine form – Kristin Scott Thomas as Churchill’s wife Clemmie is the warm rock he needs to remain calm, and she plays the role so well that it arouses a sense of empathy. For the viewers she is a resolute stopping point – between the back-stabbing and elderly men’s sighs, eye-rolls and bickering, Wright has allowed a certain level of love to sneak in. King George seems to be an impenetrable role in terms of reception, as Ben Mendelsohn puts in a convincingly stern, royal shift which plays a larger role in the film than anticipated. The standout opposition to Oldman’s showstopping triumph is Stephen Dillane as foreign secretary Viscount (not the minty biscuit) Halifax. At first a frenemy, soon a more formidable foe, he expertly embodies a sleazy, selfish politician, and although his motives will ring morally right for some (he strives for peace talks constantly), in the presence of Oldman’s patriotism-evoking speeches, he falls – of course that is how the story goes. But there are some gloriously tense moments between the clashing pair, particularly in the ‘war room’ where long, brooding stares turn to heated words turn to Churchill exclaiming “Would you stop interrupting me when I am interrupting you!”.
It’s a reasonably compelling slice of British history, but it isn’t all entirely gripping. Aside from the fact that looking at the war from a grander view, this isn’t the most interesting segment, there is a stretch towards the end in which you may find yourself tapping your foot, waiting on the inevitable film-closing speech. If you’re not fully invested in this lesson, then like in school, you’ll start to drift away. Also there’s a shoe-horned attempt at romantic thinking of the historical icon towards the end, one I cannot verify as being historically accurate. As much as it is all very lovely, it’s an abrupt change of tone.