Sometimes, the performance at the center of a film is the only reason you need to see it, and this is certainly the case with Darkest Hour, the latest from director Joe Wright (Atonement, Pride & Prejudice, Hanna). There are few actors working today (or perhaps ever) who are so adept at acting while being totally obscured by makeup effects than Gary Oldman. Here, he is all but unrecognizable as Winston Churchill during the first few weeks of his role as the British Prime Minister in 1940, as his nation stood at the verge of officially entering World War II. With pressure from all around him to attempt to negotiate a peace with Hitler, Churchill had another course of action in mind: to fight.
Much like Dunkirk earlier this year, Darkest Hours ends with Churchill’s iconic speech imploring his fellow countrymen to “never surrender.” In an unintentional way, this film serves as the perfect lead in to Dunkirk as it gives us a sense of the events leading up to that infamous rescue mission on French shores. But this movie also gives us a sense of the internal political climate in Britain at the time. Churchill wasn’t expected to last as Prime Minister (after Neville Chamberlain stepped down), with so much opposition to his plans and brusk manner. We see him seek wisdom from any and every source, from his wife Clementine (Kristen Scott Thomas) to his private secretary Elizabeth Layton (Lily James), who had a very real stake in the war, to King George VI (Ben Mendelsohn, playing the same monarch at the center of The King’s Speech), who met with Churchill every week to discuss current events.
Oldman moves back and forth over an unseen line between making Churchill blustery and argumentative and allowing him to be empathetic and a man of the people, listening to their desire to fight against all odds against any fascist oppressors. For a film that is essentially an exercise in moving from room to room, it’s decidedly gripping and wonderfully dramatic in its execution. The most bitter verbal battles are between Churchill and Viscount Hailfax (Stephen Dillane), who seems to go out of his way to never agree with the Prime Minister’s decisions.
Wright (who did his own quite staggering and horrifying staging of the Dunkirk evacuation in Atonement) allows Oldman the space and time to embody his Churchill to such a degree that the actor vanishes and we forget what the real Churchill looked like. We see the man adjust his public speaking style to suit his audience (Parliament, radio, and small group of military planners), and the result is a layered and complicated performance. And it’s this flexibility and ability to appeal to both parties that worked to his advantage.
Unlike the vast outdoor scope of Dunkirk, Darkest Hour takes us inside the cigar-choked war rooms where decisions about lives were made. Churchill himself was being undermined at every turn, but that was nothing compared to how much the man loathed his own mind and body, and Oldman captures every bit of this internal war as well, with such openness and honesty that the actor gives us an interpretation the likes of which I’ve never seen (and there have certainly been a fair share of Churchills in history, even just this year).
Some of the material may feel dry; some will absolutely feel familiar. But that doesn’t take away from Oldman’s performance or Wright’s steady work putting us by his side. It may be history, but Darkest Hour doesn’t feel like homework. It’s vibrant, thrilling and intriguing all at once.