There's one thing that you simply must realize before sitting down to watch Joe Wright's latest film, Darkest Hour.
Gary Oldman deserves an Oscar nomination for his portrayal of Winston Churchill.
Did you hear that?
Oh, wait. Let me say it again. Gary Oldman deserves an Oscar nomination for his portrayal of Winston Churchill.
I mean, seriously. I'm not kidding. I mean, everybody says so. It must be true. I mean, just in case you hadn't heard the news I'll tell you one more time - Gary Oldman deserves an Oscar nomination for his portrayal of Winston Churchill.
Thank goodness. I've got that out of the way.
With nary a mention of the actual film itself, critics and audiences alike have been singing the praises of Gary Oldman's performance as, you guessed it, Winston Churchill for several weeks now as awards season is finally upon us and Hollywood starts overloading the theatres with its rarely seen, often praised Oscar baity type films.
Joe Wright, director of such films as Atonement and Pride & Prejudice, is back for another go at the Academy Awards with Darkest Hour, a relentlessly watchable if not particularly compelling account beginning in the spring of 1940 when German forces have invaded Belgium and France and pushed a good majority of English forces onto a beach in the French coastal town of Dunkirk, a battle that should still be fresh in the minds of Christopher Nolan fans everywhere. British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain's efforts at appeasing Hitler have failed causing him to be replaced by the only man deemed acceptable by both majority parties, a certain chap named Winston Churchill, at the time mostly a forgotten and oft-maligned politician who's quickly faced with the seemingly impossible choice between attempting to negotiate with Hitler or, even more unfathomably, going to battle with German forces that are seemingly larger, more powerful and seemingly insurmountable.
Churchill was wildly lacking in support even within his own Conservative Party, especially by Chamberlain (Ronald Pickup) and Viscount Halifax (Stephen Dillane), both of whom are so smarmy and dastardly that one could easily see them aboard the Orient Express.
The truth is that only Oldman's performance here truly matters, though one should be grateful that it is, in fact, a rather masterful performance so disciplined and joyously blustery that one practically forgets about all the other characters anyway. It's just a pity that Joe Wright never digs deeper than a fetishistic adoration for Churchill, a greeting card approach to a far more complex story and central character. The fact that Oldman sells it so completely despite such a surface approach is practically a class in master acting itself, a reminder that the Academy Award-nominated Oldman remains one of the least predictable and most rewarding actors of our generation.
Kristin Scott Thomas is given the thankless task of portraying Churchill's wife Clementine, while Lily James adds a quiet warmth as Hitler's chastely nurturing secretary, Elizabeth Layton. Ben Mendelsohn's turn as King George, most recently seen portrayed by Colin Firth in The King's Speech, is less self-conscious and insecure than Firth's portrayal yet also more guarded and morose. Yet, it is in the exchanges between King George and Churchill that Darkest Hour gains its greatest sparks and emotional resonance as the two, slowly but surely, establish a sort of uneasy camaraderie.
Darkest Hour does feature Oldman's finest performance in quite some time, though an Academy Award nomination is far from a done deal given the film's stagey presentation and propaganda-laden script that refuses to delve deeper into the truth of the times and the truth of Churchill. Bruno Delbonnel's lens spends so much time in close-up to Oldman's jowly exhortations and patrioting spewings that one can practically feel the spit hitting the screen.
Darkest Hour is a lot like that really beautiful painting in the art museum, the one you can sit and admire but you can never actually touch. You may find yourself completely enjoying it while you're sitting there watching, but a few moments after leaving the theatre you're asking yourself "What's for lunch?"
© Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic