Darkest Hour Review
An unrecognisable Gary Oldman dominates this period drama
Gary Oldman turns in a tour de force performance in this stirring political and historical drama from Joe Wright.Eleven years after the release of Joe Wright’s Atonement the director is returning to the same turbulent time period to bring another piece of serious, historic drama to our cinemas. This time we see things from the behind the scenes perspective, as the bigwigs of parliament tried to win the war. Gary Oldman is Winston Churchill, the newly elected Conservative Prime Minister who is thrust headlong into political crisis. Belgium and France are on the verge of capitulating to Hitler, and Churchill seems to be the only man willing to do whatever it takes to defy the Nazis.
This is yet another innovative period film by Wright, who seems to singlehandedly overturn the stereotype of historical dramas as snooze-fests. The film looks like a piece of art, with stunning cinematography from Bruno Delbonnel. There are a few breathtaking big, set piece scenes of the unfurling war, but most of the film takes place within the corridors of power. An inky black colour palette works to set the tone and time, and is only enhanced by a resounding score by Dario Marianelli. But the real pièce de resistance of Darkest Hour is Gary Oldman.
Swaddled in beefy prosthetics, the veteran actor seems both perfect and perfectly imperfect for the role of Churchill. It would have been very easy for the lead performance to be formulaic, an act of pantomime. Churchill’s face and voice and legacy have long loomed over the culture both of the UK and of British film and television. History has taught us key lines from his speeches, and of course many of these are included in Anthony McCarten’s screenplay.
But Oldman’s performance is masterful, with the perfect amount of bluster, gravitas, emotion and intelligence. His Churchill is belligerent and brash, but the performance perfectly embodies the character of the man so engrained into British culture.
But this, arguably, is also one of the film’s biggest flaws; this Churchill of modern legend is difficult to reconcile with the man who at best turned his back on the starving people of India (but of course there isn’t time to go into the minutiae of the empire in a film that runs for over two hours…). This is a man who is a movie hero. He’s flawed, yes. He’s brash, and rude, and ungainly, and he has jowls for days. But this is the man who stood up to Hitler, and in this film he’s our saviour.
But even those who take issue with any rose-tinted hindsight with regards to issues of imperialism will be buoyed and carried along by Oldman’s performance. Indeed, both Clementine Churchill (Kristin Scott Thomas) and typist Elizabeth Layton (Lily James) adore him, and provide plenty of misty-eyed moments. Scott Thomas makes the most of a few scenes of substance.
Oldman’s performance is masterful, with the perfect amount of bluster, gravitas, emotion and intelligence
This isn’t an explosive, tell-all expose of Churchill. There is yet to be a film on the big screen that asks sceptical or uncomfortable questions about the former Prime Minister. But that’s not what this film set out to be, either. This is a film about Churchill’s handling of the Dunkirk era, Hitler and World War II. This is about the man taking the reigns of power and how he reacted. There’s a fair bit of poetic licence (the scene on the tube is particularly saccharine), and it’s difficult to separate the ‘keep calm and carry on’ tone of the film from our current contemporary brand of political jingoism.
But Darkest Hour succeeds in making a film about a terrible time in British history, and it succeeds in making a compelling, entertaining character study of one of the biggest and most iconic historical figures. There’s obviously a desire at the moment to revisit the politics of the 1940s (both on-screen and off), and this film is even more fascinating when considered alongside Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk.
At its core, this is a heart-swelling, pride-inducing, compelling film about how Churchill became Churchill, helmed by what is probably Gary Oldman’s greatest performance.
Our Review Ethos
To comment on what you've read here, click the Discussion tab and post a reply.