Director: Joe Wright
Cast: Gary Oldman, Lily James, Stephen Dillane, Ben Mendelsohn, Kristin Scott Thomas, Ronald Pickup
Plot: As Hitler invades Europe, Great Britain hires a tougher Prime Minister, Winston Churchill (Oldman), much to the chagrin of his cabinet.
Ever since the first pictures dropped, people have been talking about Gary Oldman’s Winston Churchill. You cannot really blame them. For one, the prosthetics and make-up required to make the actor look the part are a breath-taking example of the height of cinema we live in. We might have motion capture apes or stunning visual effects in our blockbusters, but nothing beats strong make-up for a quieter sense of accomplishment. Gary Oldman is the last actor you expect to be playing the iconic prime minister, yet thanks to modern technology he is. Which brings us to the next, and perhaps bigger, reason to get excited about this casting choice: Gary Oldman is a phenomenal actor. Whether he is quietly stealing scenes in the Dark Knight trilogy, chewing scenery as a larger-than-life villain (there are too many examples to even list), or breaking hearts in Harry Potter, there are few people that will argue that Oldman hasn’t got what it takes. However, rather criminally, his single Oscar nomination for Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, feels distant and unworthy of an actor who should be fighting off other nominees year after year. Winston Churchill seems a role designed to break this trend, a chance to see the fabulous actor in a role we never thought we would see him in. Suffice to say, he is beyond excellent. Gary Oldman not only looks the part, but embodies the quieter moments. His dialogue is uncanny, his softer side is conveyed beautifully and as the film dives into the moments of self-doubt from the Prime Minister, we lap it up, wrapped up in the rarely seen fragility of the great hero and national treasure. However, in fairness to the actor, he was given a role that hands him half of the performance on the plate. We could argue that the script’s best dialogue was written back in 1940, as Oldman tears into Winston Churchill’s well-written speeches with the same fiery passion that made the real-life figure one of the country’s greatest orators anyway. It is such a larger than life performance to not amaze would be more difficult than impressing an audience. That being said, this shouldn’t take away from a magnificent performance. Allow me to simply confirm the brilliance of Gary Oldman’s Winston Churchill and move on to the other elements of the movie.
In terms of performance, while Oldman holds centre-stage, there is some great talent in the background really holding Britain’s own in terms of great performers. Ben Mendelsohn takes his usual foreboding caricature and stamps down on it, so it bleeds from a stoic posture, rather than anything as showy as we wold usually expect from the actor. Stephen Dillane is predictably strong as a stubborn man of power (no child sacrifices took place during the making of this film), but uses the smaller moments, like discovering an old friend has cancer, to show that there is more to the character, and the actor, than a scowling face. And while Kristin Scott Thomas perhaps has the stock thankless role as the wife of the title character, she holds a sharp wit and allows Oldman room to share the warmer, more heart-felt moments of the piece. Perhaps the best supporting actor here, and as she becomes a more and more prominent fixture of the year’s cinematic schedule it doesn’t feel too surprising, is Lily James as the typist. It is through her that we see the view of the era in Britain’s history without the mindset of a politician. James works well to pull back a teary female role into the realms of real, over objectifying. However, perhaps the real supporting star is the director. While it is the kind of direction where Oldman’s performance steals the limelight so much you hardly feel Wright’s presence in his own movie, the talent is there. The dull colour palette contrasts with Churchill’s optimism and rings truer with the actual events of 1940, suggesting that even the world around Churchill is trying to stomp out his reign. And there is one shot, strangely artistic among a sea of gritty, real shots, where Churchill takes an elevator, the world around him plunging into total darkness. On the whole, it is Wright’s willingness to stand back and let the acting do the talking that makes Darkest Hour as good as it is. It means that the honesty and power of the story is never overpowered by any sense of ownership over the project. And there are some key beats in Darkest Hour that is surprisingly real. As Churchill fights his party over abandoning peace talks with Hitler, Wright actually gives us cause to side with his opposition. The only reason we know that their plan is doomed to fail is hindsight, meaning that Churchill’s ruthless stubbornness becomes harder and harder to defend. Yet you stayed glued to the screen hoping that it holds true. If Darkest Hour is anything to go by, it came closer to breaking than history would have us believe, a truly gripping thing to watch play out in cinemas.
Final Verdict: Oldman is amazing, but surrounded by a strong supporting cast, a talented director and a time in history that is ripe to be captured by a movie of this stature.