If ‘V’ stands for victory then ‘O’ must mean Oscar for Oldman!
It is May 1940 and Britain is on the precipice of a Second World War; up against the powerful force of Hitler and Nazi Germany. With France about to fall, little faith is left within the leadership and it falls into the lap of Winston Churchill (Gary Oldman) to push Britain through whilst the threat of invasion looms. Based on his first month in charge, we witness his journey through some of those closet to him; his wife Clementine and new typist Elizabeth Layton (Lily James)
However, with an apprehensive King (Ben Mendelsohn), a pessimistic public and unsupportive party, he faces a tough choice between negotiating with Hitler and save the British people at a terrible cost or rally the nation and fight on against incredible odds.
Let’s all agree that this is a film all about performance. Whether it be from the actors, the elegance of a scene or from the poetry of the script, Darkest Hour delivers us a creative fire full of performance. Sir Winston Churchill is a figure that has been portrayed many a time on the screen. But this time, the standard has been reached. Once you see this film, no portrayal of our iconic prime minster will ever be matched. Ladies and Gentleman, the sole reason for that is the legend that is Gary Oldman. If you needed any further proof that he is one of the UK’s best actors, here is your smoking gun.
Fun story: upon exiting the cinema, my sister thought Oldman genuinely just looked a lot like Churchill. I got my phone out, showed her what Oldman really looked like and of course, she was amazed. Behind the wrinkles, you can still catch a glimpse of Oldman through his feature blue eyes but you soon get lost in the physicality of Churchill. The result of 3 hours makeup time every day, designed by Kazuhiro Tsuji and applied by the magical hands of David Malinowski and Lucy Sibbick. Consisting of a crafted wig altering the actors face and head shape, additional facial prosthetics and a fat suit; I tried looking for faults, for any weakness to give up the illusion. There was none, zilch, zero; it was utter flawless-ness.
I don’t use the word ‘flawless’ lightly but I’ve already said it once and I will say it again; Oldman’s performance – F-l-a-w-l-e-s-s. There are rare times in cinema when it just clicks. When an actor goes beyond and above in such a way, that you are sat there thinking ‘how can they do this?’. The mannerism’s are uncanny. His steps are heavy yet his walk bouncy and led forward through his gut and his head. His bottom lip wobbles through scenes of distress; the cigars roll around his mouth like a part of him that never leaves. What is most impressive however is the speech. Every grumble and mumble under his breath, whilst his naïve typist attempts to write what he says, is pitch perfect. The tone of his voice and the emphasis delivered upon words makes no mistake in telling you that this is Winston Churchill speaking.
His unique words are expertly brought to life; through use of a brilliant script by Anthony McCarten (The Theory of Everything). There is no attempt at disguising Churchill’s most known speeches and rightly so; you could perform them word to word yourself. Not only do we see the stoic leader, we also see a man riddled with issues of self-confidence. Wright incorporates the weight of Operation Gallipoli (a failed naval attack led by Churchill in WW1) on his shoulders and it clearly plagues him with indecision. Contested by Lord Halifax (Stephen Dillane) who wishes to hold peace talks with Hitler; Churchill wrestles with doubt between having an clear end or venturing into the unknown. Right by his side is his fearless Clemmie, elegantly played by Kristin Scott Thomas who depicts that old love can still root you to who you are.
Cinematically, Wright does a good job. He doesn’t let the historical element drag the film down, but more so illuminates it through cleverly shot concepts. The first time we meet Churchill is in his blackened bedroom, albeit for a tiny spark that fires up the ashy circle of his cigar; giving us a glimpse of his iconic features. However there were 2 standout scenes for me; the first is where the British public hear their PM’s first radio broadcast. Noticeably nervous, the box room is quiet as he awaits his trigger of a red light; it suddenly blows and there’s a blood red hue surrounding him. A mixture of sharp editing, dramatic pauses and close-ups of a fearful leader equals a tense build up that transports you into the scene.
The second was the moment when clutching at straws, Churchill has to rely on American present Franklin Roosevelt for allied help. A minimalist scene with just the leader and his telephone; but Wright highlights this even further by brilliantly singling out the shot of the worn leader slumped against the wall as he deliberates. He accentuates the claustrophobia by zooming out, leaving the lonely room set in the middle and just darkness placed either side. Accompanied by a beautiful piece of script, Wright showcases his talents theatrically with a brilliant use of motifs. I also wouldn’t be able to forgive myself if I didn’t mention how magnificent Ben Mendelsohn was as King George; him and Oldman share some great scenes.
Although Darkest Hour carries many strengths, there are also weaknesses. In a script of honest events, they decide to finish with a scene that undeniably warms the heart; however it also makes you grin with how blatantly fake it feels. This coupled with a slow start and a few dull moments here and there left me not falling in love with the film. Nonetheless, should you miss this? Absolutely not.
There are funny moments and sad times but even more than that, it just makes you feel good as a Brit. Pride for our country is perhaps one of our strongest qualities and Wright makes sure to incorporate that for our viewing pleasure. Made even better by the incomparable Gary Oldman who humanizes emotions and words to a degree matched by little. Said in the words of the man himself – “He mobilized the English language and sent it into battle”
3.5 out of 5 smoked cigars
Catch the trailer here.