By Jack Dignan
The transformative movie performance is something that never ceases to amaze. It sees an actor undergoing significant changes to their body, whether it’s through make-up or a rigorous diet alternation, and more than likely winning an Oscar, let’s be real. Just look at Heath Ledger in The Dark Knight, Christian Bale in The Machinist, Charlize Theron in Monster or Daniel Day Lewis in just about anything. It’s a travesty that we live in a world where Gary Oldman is yet to win an Oscar. An absolute travesty. But with Darkest Hour, Oldman undergoes an unrecognisable transformation, and it could just be what leads him to his much-deserved Oscar win.
Winston Churchill, as I’m sure you’re aware, is an iconic historical figure. That sentence almost doesn’t need to be said. With iconic historical figures, there comes the inevitable movie adaptation, or in Churchill’s case, adaptations. Plural. Darkest Hour is the latest of a long string of cinematic appearances, not even being the first this year, however, of all the ones I’ve seen, it’s the one that paints this man at his most human. This isn’t merely the story of a Prime Minister who helped save the war. It’s the story of a man at his wits end, pushing back against a government who wants to overthrow him, and also helping save the war while he’s at it.
Darkest Hour takes place over the course of a month, back in the early days of World War 2. Western Europe is in disarray. Hitler is becoming an increasingly prominent threat, to the point where Europe is on the brink of a merciless defeat. The current Prime Minister, Neville Chamberlain (Ronald Pickup), is being booted from parliament for his inept failure to bring the country to peace. A new Prime Minister is needed, and the man chosen for the job is none other than Winston Churchill (Gary Oldman), an extremely unconventional choice, but the only one capable of striking fear into the enemy.
He was the man chosen to save them. The man who they hoped would bring an end to the fighting. Instead, Churchill saw what nobody else could. He saw that the only way to achieve victory was to fight it out until the bloody end, much to the world’s disarray. Darkest Hour depicts his steep uphill battle to rise amongst the ranks and earn the respect he knows he deserves. It’s a large-scale story depicted in a very small way. Nearly everything is confined to small, underground rooms, where tension is high and the stakes are critical, all while mixing in moments of humour sparsely but effectively throughout.
Many will shrug this off as being Oscar bait, and while that certainly could be the case (it’s no doubt going to be going home with at least a few nominations), that doesn’t make it any less enjoyable. If you enjoyed Christopher Nolan’s wartime epic Dunkirk, Darkest Hour is essentially the same film but from a different point of view. A large chunk of the movie revolves around Western Europe’s ineffective war strategies; consequently causing the Dunkirk troops to be rallied up and… well, you’ve seen the movie. It’s not as impressive on a technical filmmaking level, but it’s far more investing when it comes to story and character.
Oscar nominee Anthony McCarten has described Darkest Hour as his passion project. He handles the screenplay with diligence and humanity. He brings a breath of fresh air to the Churchill story, giving us something we haven’t seen before, while simultaneously telling a story depicted similarly on-screen several times before. His dialogue is fast and impactful, even if he often gets lost in his numbing political conversations, where old white dudes ramble on about topics that didn’t need to be discussed in such great depth. Still, when Churchill is giving a speech, the auditorium quiets down, and understandably so.
The combination of McCarten’s words, Oldman’s career defining performance and Joe Wright’s articulate direction make this film an exhausting, but resonate cinematic experience that’s riveting in every sense of the word. It’s a verbal sports match. Everything is heated and packs a punch, and Wright shows an earnest care towards the craft, and especially towards his actors. The direction is dedicated and thorough, a complete turn around from 2015’s box office flop Pan. He returns to the world of drama and it’s a welcomed return indeed. Oldman may steal the show, but Wright makes sure he earns that praise.
Everything you’re going to hear about Gary Oldman’s performance will be said to death, but it’s all true. Every last bit of it. It’s an unrecognisable and truly breathtaking portrayal of Churchill that’s sure to go down as one of the most talked about performances of the last few years. He doesn’t just look like Churchill, thanks to an immaculate make-up job, but he becomes Churchill. Oldman personifies this man into cinematic bliss. So many different scenes could be played during his Oscar-montage, however my personal favourite scene sees him riding the subway with regular citizens. It’s Churchill at his most subtle and relaxed, and it’s easily my favourite scene from this movie.
I feel I’ve spent this entire review praising Darkest Hour, which technically I have, so my rating may come as a low surprise, but there are definitely some issues here. Despite stylistically consistent, the colour grading does feel draining and drab at times, especially during an exterior scene involving Ben Mendelsohn’s King George VI. Plus, you never really feel the complexity behind Churchill’s decision making. You’re invested in his character arc and overall journey, yet I could never explain why. He never reasons his actions outside of “I’m right and you’re wrong.” Still, there’s enough here to grasp in terms of craft and storytelling, making Darkest Hour a truly unforgettable period epic.
3 1/2 Stars
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