With Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk and season one of The Crown fresh in our consciousness, Joe Wright’s Darkest Hour arrives at a moment when we’re steeped in British World War II nostalgia. Wright’s even making his second attempt at the evacuation of Dunkirk, following the middle chapter of Atonement, so there’s a real déjà vu watching this new biopic.
The looming question of Darkest Hour is: Will Winston Churchill stand up against the tide of Nazism and refuse to negotiate peace talks with Adolf Hitler? Since we know the answer, the dramatic stakes come from filling in the behind-the-scenes political debate during the tense weeks of May and June 1940.
But the question you’re probably asking is, how is Gary Oldman? Hidden somewhere beneath the rotund body and sagging jowls of the Prime Minister, Oldman almost disappears into the part. And it’s that almost that makes the difference. Watching Oldman impersonate Churchill recalls Meryl Streep’s Oscar-winning work in The Iron Lady. The transformation is difficult to look past; I couldn’t help but think about all the difficulty Oldman went through to become Churchill, and try to figure out how much of Oldman’s real visage is visible to us. Churchill frequently walks around half-dressed in a robe, but we know the camera has to be discreet, to avoid accidentally catching a glimpse of Oldman’s fat suit. Because of his elaborate costume, Oldman’s every gesture feels exaggerated, and his take on Churchill emphasizes the man’s buffoonish qualities. At times his voice reminded me less of the real man, and more of Winnie the Pooh.
In contrast, his co-stars Kristin Scott Thomas and Ben Mendelsohn feel like real people, making the most of their brief screen time. As Churchill’s wife, Thomas has a cunning glint in her eye; I wish the movie spent more time with her. Mendelssohn plays King George VI, mostly cured of his speech impediment, as a weary monarch reluctantly attempting to find common ground with his new prime minister.
The movie is great fun to watch, due to Joe Wright’s lavish visual sensibility. He and cinematographer Bruno Delbonnel bathe Parliament in a cool chiaroscuro light like an old Flemish painting, while the subterranean corridors housing the prime minister’s staff feel like a noir spin on The West Wing’s walk-and-talk tracking shots. Several shots isolate Churchill in a box center-frame (in the water closet, elevator, etc.), surrounded by black on all sides–a nice visualization of the weight placed on him alone.
Anthony McCarten’s script smartly narrows its scope to the few weeks in which Churchill takes power and debates with his War Cabinet whether England should negotiate with Hitler. With casualties piling up across Europe with each passing day, the cabinet despairs that avoiding peace talks will deplete their forces entirely, offering no hope for the West. But interspersed with this promising intrigue are several scenes where McCarten falls prey to the screenwriter’s trap: using historical license to guarantee we’re inspired. The most pandering scene is Churchill’s excursion on the Tube, where he meets several ordinary citizens who uniformly urge him to fight back against the Nazis and never give in. What would have happened if he’d gotten on a different car with a horde of anti-government protesters? Would Churchill have been roused to give his famous “we will not surrender” oration then?
“He’s an actor in love with the sound of his own voice,” another character says of the prime minister. And this suggests a way to enjoy watching Gary Oldman here: as the actor himself gleefully showing us all the tricks he needs to pull this off. It takes a village to make a performance like this.