Between Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk back in July and now Joe Wright’s Darkest Hour, it’s been a big year for British stiff-upper-lip resolve at the movies. In their own narrative way, both films deal with the country’s crises at home and abroad during the darkest days of WWII, when our ally across the Atlantic was staring down Hitler and even grimmer odds. In Nolan’s movie, we were immersed in the sights, sounds, and smells of the battlefield. Wright, on the other hand, is more interested in the political battles being waged at home – the cigar smoke-filled backrooms of Parliament and 10 Downing Street in the form of Winston Churchill, whose rise from exile would provide the spiritual shot in the arm the nation needed when it needed it the most. Nolan’s and Wright’s films make perfect companion pieces for History Channel buffs.
Darkest Hour zooms in on the pitbull prime minster during one crucial month in the early stages of the war. That would be May 1940, when the countries of Western Europe are falling like dominoes to the Nazis. Hitler’s invasion of France means that his next stop is Britain. And the country, under a failure of leadership, reluctantly turns to the controversial and bigger-than-life Churchill. By focusing on one month of Churchill’s life, Wright (Atonement, Pride & Prejudice) is very much working in the mold here of Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln. It’s painting a portrait of a great man by working in miniature. Darkest Hour isn’t quite as great a film as Spielberg’s (or Nolan’s, for that matter), but it does have a central performance from Gary Oldman that will likely draw comparisons to Daniel Day-Lewis’ as the American president due to how invisibly and seamlessly the actor inhabits and loses himself in the man he’s playing.
I’ll be honest, Oldman hasn’t been this good for a very long time. To be even more honest, he’s starred in a lot of junk in the past decade. But remember, this is the actor who played Sid Vicious in Sid and Nancy and was so hypnotic (and often scary) in Prick Up Your Ears, State of Grace, JFK, The Professional, True Romance, Immortal Beloved, and The Contender. It’s both a relief and revelation to see him get the chance to swing for the fences again.
Like Day-Lewis in Lincoln, it takes about 30 seconds for you to forget that you’re watching an actor and just believe. Hidden under pounds of latex jowls, pear-shaped body padding, and flawless aging make-up, Oldman is Churchill. And not only the look, but also the mischievous wit, the twinkle in the eye, the rousing oratory, and the crippling self-doubt when he most needed to project confidence – especially in his scenes with his wife (Kristin Scott Thomas), his secretary (Lily James), and King George VI (Ben Mendelsohn). It’s remarkable. Over the years a lot of great actors, have tackled Churchill: Albert Finney, Brendan Gleeson, Rod Taylor, Richard Burton, Timothy Spall, Bob Hoskins, and most recently John Lithgow in The Crown. But Oldman’s Churchill seems to go beyond acting into a sort of conjuring act.
The rest of the movie isn’t quite on the level of Oldman’s squalling performance. Wright, a director I like, has a tendency to make films that feel a bit too painterly and self-aware. They seem to exist under glass. And you’re always aware of the director when you should be swept up in the story. Still, I don’t think we’ll ever see anyone else do Churchill this well again unless the man himself comes back from the dead. B+