On the heels of Christopher Nolan’s incredibly unconventional Dunkirk comes Darkest Hour, Joe Wright’s decidedly conventional take on the same story, just from Winston Churchill’s point of view instead of the soldiers’.
It’s May, 1940. Belgium and France have fallen. The Germans have the British army surrounded on the beaches of Dunkirk. There are not enough ships for a proper evacuation. The entire history of western civilization hinges on this very moment and Brittain just happens to have a newly installed Prime Minister facing mutiny from within his own ranks and staring down the prospect of having to surrender before their part in the war has even properly begun.
Nolan looked at that and saw a story of survival and unbearable tension on part of the soldiers, military leaders and ordinary citizens; Wright looked at it and saw a Lincoln-esque story of hagiography, backroom dealings and the power of one man and his impeccably selected words to save the world. Both approaches have their merits, and both films are worth seeing. The difference is you see Dunkirk to observe Nolan and his non-linear tendencies at work; you see Darkest Hour to marvel at Gary Oldman, hidden underneath a mountain of makeup and prosthetics, blustering and mumbling his way through as transparent a “For Your Consideration” performance as we’ve had in recent memory. Make no mistake about it – Darkest Hour is every bit the piece of Oscar bait it would seem to be on paper; it also happens to be remarkably thrilling.
Framed around two of his most famous speeches – “Victory at all costs” and “We shall never surrender” – Darkest Hour depicts Churchill’s ascension from the Prime Minister no one was particularly passionate about to a national hero all in the span of less than a month. The film masterfully maintains the tension by using simple scene transitions to overlay an old-fashioned calendar on the screen to forebodingly mark the passage of days, noting how quickly Churchill’s “Victory at all costs” speech led the more peace-seeking members of Parliament to plot a vote of no confidence.
As you’d expect from the same man who directed Atonement, Wright ensures there is plenty of period piece opulence in the form of lushly designed interiors and perfectly staged tracking shots. There is even a neat, consistent camera trick where we only ever see the soldiers out in the field from above, the image quickly zooming in from the sky, as if Churchill’s war room map suddenly allowed him to peer down on the actual lives he was sacrificing.
While Wright and his production team see to all of that, Oldman and his co-stars, chiefly Kristin Scott Thomas as supportive, but frustrated wife Clementine, Lily James as Churchill’s new secretary, and Ben Mendelsohn as King George VI, stutter and all, provide the emotion and, in Oldman’s case, thunder.
Newly thrust into an office he’d desired since birth, or so he jokes at one point, Churchill proves to be belligerent almost to a fault, but in Oldman’s hands, he’s also charismatic, inspiring, quick-witted, hilariously unconcerned with convention, and a sneakily skilled manipulator who learns on the go. As John Serba wrote in his review, “There’s great entertainment to be had in the film’s over-the-top opening sequence in which Churchill terrifies his secretary for not single-spacing the memo he’s dictating, and Oldman sets the tone for a hysterical capital-A Acting performance that’s inspired by charging rhinoceroses and bleating elephant seals as much as it is by Churchill himself.”
Indeed, a simple search of YouTube for actual Churchill speeches reveals a truly larger-than-life figure, but one whose pauses weren’t quite as prolonged as Oldman’s and yells not quite as loud. That’s because Oldman isn’t so much playing the real Churchill as he is playing our idea of Churchill, and what a stirring idea it proves to be. Churchill was the only man, as Darkest Hour tells us, who scared Hitler, and Oldman brings that to life just about better than anyone to have ever played the part.
THE BOTTOM LINE
Oldman’s enticingly over the top performance only truly works because the stakes in the story are real and well communicated, the tension is expertly maintained throughout, and whenever this particular version of Churchill seems to be on the brink of becoming a cartoon he’s paired with Kristin Scott Thomas, Lily James or Ben Mendelsohn to undercut his bulldog tendencies and humanize him. The result is a thrilling piece of Oscar bait that should in no way be considered a failure should it fail to actually win Oscar gold.