TELLURIDE FILM REVIEW: Gary Oldman Stuns as Winston Churchill in DARKEST HOUR
If ever in his illustrious career Gary Oldman was going to win, or come close to winning, an Academy Award, it surely will be for his tour-de-force, bring down the house performance as Winston Churchill in Joe Wright’s Darkest Hour. As we accurately reported in January, the movie covers a very short window at the birth of Churchill’s first stint as Prime Minister of the United Kingdom. It is an interesting choice, but one that ultimately succeeds in portraying the nuances of Churchill’s brilliance and his shortcomings, thanks to Oldman’s powerful delivery.
Two things are important to get out of the way at the outset. First, Darkest Hour is not about the entirety of the war, nor is it even about Britain’s actual darkest hour, when they faced invasion and daily bombings. Instead, it is about Churchill’s internal struggle within himself and against his political enemies to take the reins of Britain’s war strategy during the collapse of Western Europe and the retreat at Dunkirk, months before the Battle of Britain.
Second, Gary Oldman, with his narrow, almost thin face, most certainly does not look like the much paunchier, round-faced Churchill. No matter, thanks to the magic of the movie makeup and of Joe Wright’s camera.
Churchill was a complex and at times enigmatic and profoundly frustrating man. Darkest Hour serves him best because of its no-holds barred, straight-forward portrayal. He drinks too much, thinks highly of himself, and treats others around him poorly at times. Churchill’s genius was that he was the only one who fully understood the Nazi threat amongst his contemporaries and, as the film so deftly shows you, the one who single-handedly kept the Allies together while the Americans took their sweet time. When Churchill became Prime Minister on 10 May 1940, American troops are still almost two years away.
Churchill’s other strength, and one which Darkest Hour enthrallingly focuses one, was his penchant for oratory, an ability that arguably surpassed that of the Fuhrer himself. But this focus requires Oldman to deliver not just the appearance of the man (though he does that too, the subtle gesticulating, the lip smacking, the at-times mumbled speaking), but his grandiloquence at those crucial moments. Oldman proves himself well-suited to the task.
The movie is also buoyed by Joe Wright’s at times dramatic but experienced direction in this sphere. The full second half of the movie involves the plans to evacuate the troops at Dunkirk, and Wright has obviously been there before, having set one of the most beautiful scenes of his enchanting Atonement during that moment in time. Wright uses other elements from that film in Darkest Hour, including speeding up and slowing down the action to the pace of the score (by the Argentine Dario Marianelli, who won an Oscar for his work on Atonement), and relying heavily on art décor and costume pomp and circumstance. Wright is a master at using light and shadow, at juxtaposing big and small, close-up and fadeout, all to great effect, none the least of which is to really confuse the viewer into thinking that Gary freaking Oldman is Winston Churchill at various points.
But Darkest Hour is actually more nuanced than being just an exposition of the famous historical figure. It is about the various relationships that affected Churchill in this critical period. The loving relationship with his wife Clementine (Kristin Scott Thomas in a strong turn), his originally-tempestuous but eventually rewarding bond with his secretary Elizabeth Nel (played by Downton Abbey’s Lily James), and, most importantly, his critical rapport with King George VI, played by Rogue One’s Ben Mendelsohn. Mendelsohn gives it his all, importantly avoiding the historically inaccurate excessive stutter that made The King’s Speech so manipulative. But he is no match for the bravura, once-in-a-lifetime act that Oldman turned in.
Still, the connection between the two is important because it sums up the true purpose of the film, at least to the extent one should be discerned beyond simply analyzing a fascinatingly difficult historical figure. The point is to reject in essence the two competing theories of history—the one that posits that great leaders are born and the contrary one that theorizes that they are made by their moment. In this film, Churchill does have innate talent (again, particularly in the power of the spoken word), but his magnificence really comes about through and because of his various interplays with these personages. He learns from them, teaches them, convinces them to change their mind, and changes his along the way. It’s an understated but welcome paean to the value of collective leadership, and to the importance of courage in the face of adversity. The values seem pitifully anachronistic today.
I will say in closing that the film cooks slowly into these themes, and at times comes close to drowning its messages in the increasingly loud cacophony of the screaming match between Churchill and his rivals (former P.M. Chamberlain and Foreign Secretary Halifax). And anti-purists will complain that Darkest Hour at times paints by numbers, despite Wright’s best efforts to mix and match styles and tempos.
Whatever else you may think of the nuances of the film, or lack thereof, you will be hard pressed to find in theaters a performance that glues you to the screen more than Gary Oldman’s in this film. Perhaps because he is too good, one is at times distracted from what else is going on in the picture. It is almost as if just one man did so much for so few, I guess.
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