by Alan Yudman
As soon as I saw the first trailer for DARKEST HOUR, I thought, “reserve a spot on the Oscar nominations list for Gary Oldman”. Nothing I saw in the film changes that initial impression. Matter of fact, I believe at this point he has got to be a favorite.
This is the story of Churchill’s ascension to Prime Minister and the days leading up to the evacuation of Dunkirk. So in a way Joe Wright’s film is a companion piece to Christoper Nolan’s DUNKIRK. Nolan’s film told the story of the evacuation (Operation Dynamo), while Wright’s film explains what was going on back in London.
There are not spoilers in a historical drama, but there were elements of the story I wasn’t aware of so I will skip by those. But as history has recorded, no one from his own party wanted Churchill to be Prime Minister. Neither did King George V. So the film tells the story of how the legend was made. How Churchill convinced, cajoled and bullied the British government into actually challenging Hitler’s plans for the conquest of Europe. It portrays politicians as sniveling cowards and fatalists. That doesn’t mean Churchill is flawless. He is unsure of himself at times, angry, demanding and pig-headed. It is a version of the great man I had never seen before.
Oldman transforms himself into Winston Churchill through make-up and mannerism. He also makes him very human. That’s hard to do when you see him as a legend. I saw a screening which was followed by a Q & A session with Oldman and Ben Mendelsohn who plays King George. Oldman talked about how that was part of his goal, to go deeper into his personality. The make-up and prosthetic’s by Kazuhiro Tsuji got him half way there. The rest is all Oldman. He is a chameleon-like actor who can completely inhabit a character. That serves him well in this role.
The rest of the cast is pretty good. Llly James plays his secretary Elizabeth Layton. Kristin Scott Thomas inhabits the role of his wife Clementine. Stephen Dillane (Stannis Baratheon from Game of Thrones) is his chief rival in the Conservative party, Viscount Halifax. All are solid performances, but are frames that adorn Oldman’s note perfect performance.
The film overall is fairly successful, mostly due to Oldman. Wright is in love with overhead shots in the film. There are a ton of them and I cannot figure out why most were necessary. He also uses graphics to mark the passage to significant dates, but he chooses to assault the eyes with enormous words covering the screen along with the accompanying dramatic sound effect. Some of it gets in the way. But overall, the script by Anthony McCarten is fine, I just wish Wright had toned down his “creativity”.
DARKEST HOUR is a vehicle for a great actor and students of history will find it interesting. Oldman elevates what could have been a mediocre movie to fine entertainment.