Film Review: 'Darkest Hour'
When Eddie Redmayne disappeared into his role as Stephen Hawking in 2015's The Theory of Everything, I guessed I would not see a better performance for many, many years. Even though I was not blogging at the time to have cataloged it, the impression it left on me is just as pronounced today as it was three years ago: thoroughly convinced that I had just seen a Hawking documentary and not a dramatic adaptation of his life.
But with Gary Oldman playing Winston Churchill in 2017's Darkest Hour, I'm convinced that Oldman has left this dimension and re-entered it as Churchill just for this movie. And it's not even just a vehicle for Oldman's career-defining performance; Darkest Hour is an all-around fine film and compelling historical drama where director Joe Wright (Atonement) does the fearless leader justice.
Even with juggernaut Daniel Day-Lewis as his competition for the leading actor Oscar, I feel comfortable saying that Oldman's performance is insurmountable. The makeup team readies the launching pad for Oldman by giving him an incredible makeup job where Oldman not only simply looks like Churchill, but no longer looks like himself. Even on many of Churchill's bespectacled close-ups, try as you might; you won't see Commissioner Gordon.
But looking the part is only ten percent of the job, and Oldman provides the remaining ninety with a performance that brings the famous face seen in newspaper photos, news clips and documentaries to vivid life. We hear the bravado so frequently displayed in Churchill's voice, and the courage and wisdom we surmise from his many famous quotes. Oldman takes it even further, however, by giving the same effort to all of the other aspects of Churchill's personality: being cranky, incredibly witty, and capable of fear, insecurities, and love.
His performance is multi-dimensional and all-encompassing, although much credit is due to how Oldman captures Churchill's witty and humorous personality. Not every scene in the movie is about political intrigue, drawing up war plans, or negotiating with ambassadors; there are moments of reality and lightheartedness peppered throughout. Writer Anthony McCarten's screenplay often refutes its own title; if we have all of these funny moments throughout, just how dark can this hour be?
It's because of Oldman that the film becomes a treat to watch if only to see where Churchill's many attitudes take him next. It's amazing to see how much WWII knowledge is crammed into the two-hour show, as Darkest Hour primarily focuses on the early times of his appointment to Prime Minister after the ousting of Neville Chamberlain (Ronald Pickup). The first items on his plate include the pressure levied on him to begin peace negotiations with Adolf Hitler as the Nazi regime pushes forward, and the crisis of 300,000 stranded British soldiers at Dunkirk. So much of it is delivered so memorably by Wright and company that we walk out of the theater thinking we just had an entertaining history lesson.
Everything else in the film supplements the centerpiece that is Oldman, with sharp, portrait-like cinematography and an effective score that cements us in the thick of WWII. There is a solid, although not amazing, supporting cast to compliment Oldman's talents in Lily James (Baby Driver) as Churchill's personal assistant Elizabeth, and Stephen Dillane (Game of Thrones) as Prime Minister snub-ee Viscount Halifax. But above all, Darkest Hour is fun.
It's not often that you refer to a cunning and well-acted British historical drama as "fun," but in the case of Darkest Hour, its a lot more enjoyable than its subject matter would let on. The embellishments of historical events may be apparent, but when it comes to capturing the soul and wit of a great leader whose many quotes are inescapable, Darkest Hour feels entirely factual.
Rated PG-13. 125 minutes.
Written by Anthony McCarten.
Directed by Joe Wright.
Starring Gary Oldman, Lily James and Kristin Scott Thomas.