Film Review – Darkest Hour
When it comes to “transformative” actors – those that have the innate ability to physically disappear into a role – there are very few who are at the level of Gary Oldman. He has a way of altering his very being for a performance, whether it’s in the way he talks or in his body language. He’s done it consistently for decades. This is the same man who played Sid Vicious, Dracula, Lee Harvey Oswald, Harry Potter’s Sirius Black, and Batman’s Jim Gordon all as their own complete and unique characters.
His turn in Darkest Hour (2017) maybe one of his finest yet. Going about as far into a persona as I can remember, Oldman uses his chameleon like skills to play Winston Churchill during the first month of Churchill’s anointment as Great Britain’s Prime Minister. As you may recall, Churchill was thrown into a volatile situation within days of taking office. This was early into WWII, and Nazi Germany was quickly invading Western Europe. British forces were pushed back, and there was a serious talk that the Nazis would soon invade Great Britain. Churchill was stuck between a rock and a hard place: should he continue to lead his military into war despite the very real possibility of losing, or should he consider peace talks with the Axis powers and allow his country to be at the mercy of the Hitler regime?
Oldman dives so deeply into the role of Churchill that I barely recognized him. The make up effects and costume design nearly erases Oldman as we know him: this Churchill is elderly, heavy set, balding, who mumbles to himself when he’s not heavily smoking cigars or drinking. And yet he’s funny and often times charming. It’s easy to see how this Churchill could sway a room to his favor. Oldman completely changes his appearance and speech pattern to resemble the Prime Minister. And although this physical transformation is impressive, what makes it work is how Oldman convinces us that it is not simply an actor in disguise on screen, but a fully-fledged character with aspirations and doubts conflicting within his psyche.
Anthony McCarten’s screenplay and Joe Wright’s direction doesn’t follow the routine stepping-stones of a biopic. We don’t see Churchill’s youth or the contributing factors that would lead him up the political ladder. Instead, the focus narrows down into this one particular point in time: where the decisions Churchill makes during the first month of his term would have lasting effect throughout the country. It is obviously not an easy place to be. His conversations with his wife Clementine (Kristin Scott Thomas), with King George VI (Ben Mendelsohn), and his war cabinet all show how Churchill was at odds with his colleagues and with his own moral standing. Can he live sacrificing the lives of thousands of British troops while clinging to a small sliver of hope that the Nazis could be turned back? A backroom telephone chat with President Franklin D. Roosevelt shows how close Churchill came to desperation.
Oldman is so good that he almost masks the rest of the film. The look and style of Darkest Hour has a very sobering tone to it. Even emotional high points are shot with a washed out color palette. However, Wright does inject some directorial flair throughout. During one montage the camera is placed high above a field looking down, where giant holes made from bomb explosions makes the landscape look like the surface of an alien planet. But most of these instances are superficial at best. The meat of the narrative has Churchill in closed rooms, bickering with the rest of his war cabinet over how they should handle the Nazi threat. Most of the conversations are tense, with the camera firmly placed with the actors in tight close ups, but the repetitiveness of these meetings started to show as the we got into the later half of the run time.
One welcomed aspect is Lily James, who plays Churchill’s secretary, Elizabeth Layton. Layton is newly hired at the time of the story, and acts as our gateway into this world. She may not play a large role as to the political decisions being made, but she does represent the effect those decisions have on the rest of society. Churchill starts out intimidating her with his gruff exterior and random bursts of impatience, but we slowly see a mutual understanding and respect develop between the two. It doesn’t play a large role in the proceedings, but it’s this little bit that makes the whole production work all the better. One of the best scenes we get is an unspoken moment between Churchill and Layton. They say no words because no words need to be said.
Darkest Hour operates best as a starting point for us to learn more about this man and how difficult a choice he had to make. This far removed from the events the film depicts; we tend to forget just how close the Nazis came to total rule. If it wasn’t for Churchill’s conviction – leading up to his famous “We Shall Fight” speech – who knows how history would have played out.