Darkest Hour is Gary Oldman’s finest

Gary Oldman stars as Winston Churchill in director Joe Wright’s Darkest Hour. (Jack English | Focus Features)

Even among people who normally identify as pacifists, an exception is usually made for the “Good War” in response to Hitler’s attempts to subjugate Germany’s European neighbors. If there is such a thing as a situation where peace simply is not an alternative, that one would be it. But that’s a judgment easily made in hindsight.

In 1940, in an England still reeling from the loss of most of a generation of young men during the Great War, not to mention a decade of economic free-fall, the idea of active intervention to save France and other mainland allies was not a popular one. Military spending had been cut drastically during the Depression years, and the thinking behind prime minister Neville Chamberlain’s “appeasement” policies had as much to do with buying time to build up British forces and armaments as they did with seeing German expansionism as a counterbalancing force to the growing power of Soviet Russia. It took a persuasive tongue to bring the average Englishman around to the point of accepting “Keep Calm and Carry On” as a national motto – even more so to coax a perpetually fractious Parliament to embrace an inevitable war.

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Fortunately, as it turned out for most of the Western world, Winston Churchill did have that gift for impassioned oratory that could sway reluctant minds to join a common cause. A complex public figure to say the least, he has been the subject of many a biopic; the latest, Joe Wright’s Darkest Hour, focuses on a single month during which that gift is put to the acid test, as Germany invades Belgium, the Netherlands and France on the very day that Churchill is named prime minister after Chamberlain is forced to resign.

Ironically, although words are given credit in this film as the tool by which Churchill steered England away from a pact with Hitler, to be brokered by Mussolini, it’s on the verbal level that Darkest Hour is least successful. Anthony McCarten’s screenplay is excessively stagey, seeking to incorporate so many documented Churchill quotes that the dialogue often sounds stilted. But the acting takes the filmic treatment to another level, transcending the limitations of the material.

Current Hollywood scuttlebutt has it that the smart money is on Gary Oldman to take home the 2017 Best Actor Oscar for his portrayal of Winston Churchill. “Wait a minute!” you say. “Gary Oldman? You’re kidding! Why him? Who would look at Gary Oldman and think of Churchill?” That’s a very good question, to which I have no answer but to say: It worked out for the best. Somehow, beneath those prosthetic jowls that required four hours in the makeup chair for each day of shooting, genius lurks, spilling out mainly at the eyes.

Oldman completely sells the transformation, offering up the range of the man from supremely self-confident to near-broken. While the narrative line doesn’t leave room for much backstory, other than a few glancing references to Churchill’s colossal miscalculation at Gallipoli and poor handling of the Indian independence movement, we get enough of his rough edges here to understand that he was far from a perfect national hero. Oldman gives us not Churchill the aristocrat but Churchill the scrapper, who relishes his day’s round of chewing out his War Cabinet, populated primarily by political enemies whom he wants to keep close.

The movie does romanticize him somewhat by showing him as more of a populist than he really was; there are a couple of lyrical slow-motion shots of “ordinary English folk” on the streets of London as viewed from the prime minister’s car, for example. The most awkward sequence in Darkest Hour involves Churchill’s spur-of-the-moment decision to take the public pulse by riding one stop on the Tube for the first time in his life, asking questions of the hoi polloi. It’s supposed to be heartwarming, but instead comes off mostly goofy, even descending to the level of an all-babies-look-like-Winston-Churchill joke. More persuasive is his relationship with his personal secretary (Lily James), who loses a brother during the retreat to Dunkirk but soldiers on with her typing and retyping of the great man’s endlessly corrected speeches – often while he is drunk and slurring his words or stomping about 10 Downing Street in his pink flowered dressing-gown and bare feet.

Kristin Scott Thomas gets in some juicy moments as Clementine Churchill, who takes no guff from her gruff husband and seems brisk enough to run the whole government by herself; we get to see the tenderness and the shared sense of humor in their long relationship as well. Ben Mendelsohn acquits himself well as a rather prissy King George VI who only comes around to embracing Churchill’s militancy when faced with the chilly prospect of a royal exile in Canada. Chief among the PM’s stiff-upper-lipped political opponents are Stephen Dillane as Hitler-appeaser-in-chief Viscount Halifax and Ronald Pickup (the same actor who played the randy old coot in the Best Exotic Marigold Hotel movies) as the dying Chamberlain.

It’s as fine an acting ensemble as one might expect from a British historical drama, and the role of a lifetime for Oldman. But the most mouthwatering things about Darkest Hour are to be found on the technical side: the deft camerawork, the perfection of the lighting, the three-dimensionality of the blocking, the delicious rhythm of the editing. Even though most of the scenes take place in the Halls of Parliament or the bunkers that lie below them, this movie’s eye is never static. Even though its script is talky, its tone is never dry.

Through it all, one senses the pulse that draws people of a certain temperament to careers in politics. Valerio Bonelli’s sumptuous score emphasizes that energy enough to make me want to acquire it: not a feeling that often strikes me while sitting through a movie. For a fully rounded picture of history from the English point of view in the early days of World War II, you could hardly do better this year than to take in both Darkest Hour and Dunkirk.

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