Coming a mere 6 months after the last Churchill film starring Brian Cox that was released last summer, which dealt with the precarious moments before the Normandy landings, is Darkest Hour which tackles Winston Churchill’s difficult first month as Prime minister in May 1940. This is a fragile bleak time for the Allies, with western Europe falling like dominoes, and Britain seemingly next in line to be invaded by the advancing Nazi forces. It’s an extraordinary tipping point of the war, as Churchill is controversially appointed as the new PM. What many viewers won’t realise until now is just how perilously close Britain was to total capitulation, with a proclaimed ‘peace deal’ which would have meant total surrender, very much on the cards. It is therefore left for Churchill (Gary Oldman) to rally the country and to resist the pressure from his own party to give in to the idea of certain collapse.
A true tour-de-force from one of acting’s greatest
The sheer physical difficulty Oldman had to overcome throughout shooting with heavy prosthetics, including a gruelling daily preparation consisting of four hours’ worth of makeup and carrying another half of his body weight as a fat suit, is testament to his dedication to the role, true suffering for his art. There is of course that trademark sparkle and a hint of mischief in Oldman’s eyes, which are pretty much the only recognisable element of his appearance left after the transformation, but it’s this cheeky wit which suits the part perfectly. Oldman was also in contact with many of Churchill’s surviving relatives throughout the process, as well as spending a thorough 8 months preparing for and researching the role. Oldman’s performance is not pure imitation, which makes for a more natural believable appearance, as we see a different version to previous less memorable portrayals. Another factor of the films strength is that it’s a portrayal of a man over a month, so therefore portrays a developed, narrow focus rather than trying to squeeze a lifetime into two hours of film.
As to whether Oldman will win Best Actor, it’s certainly looking promising with a Golden Globe and a handful of other big awards already in the bag. This feels very much like his moment, like the narrative of Leo’s eventual triumph with The Revenant in 2016. If anyone deserves a best actor award it is Gary Oldman, not that his career should dictate whether he receives it of course. The prestigious award somehow evaded him as odds on favourite in 2012 for Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, so now more than ever he is the favourite and probably deserved nominee to take home the award come March the fourth.
Pieces of the puzzle
There is an ever-present urgency and creeping sense of menace, due to the constant reminders that Britain is on the verge of invasion, which inject a frantic pace to scene after scene of what would normally be an exhausting amount of dialogue. Additionally, the crisp cinematography excellently portrays Churchill’s isolation from both the public and his own party, using claustrophobic framing and increasingly gloomy lighting to paint a picture of a man struggling to fight battles from all angles.
The support cast who unfortunately won’t get as much limelight as Oldman, are fantastic too with Kristin Scott Thomas and Lily James bringing some much-needed colour and charm to the roles of Churchill’s wife and secretary respectively. Ben Mendelsohn of course is brilliant as always as King George VI, and the relationship he and Oldman develop on screen is fascinating to watch.
Things get a little ridiculous late on as Churchill takes the tube to Westminster to consult random members of the public on the prospect of impending peace talks with the Germans. The sequence stands out like a sore thumb, but it is heart-warming as it is completely fictional and silly. The story loses legs a bit towards the end too, with scene after scene of essentially old men arguing in dark smoky underground rooms, but nevertheless Oldman’s remarkable presence in almost every single scene ties the film together even through the lulls in drama.
A truly monumental performance of strength, isolation and determination from one of the greatest, most consistent British actors around. Gary Oldman’s exceptional transformation and portrayal somewhat overshadows the film, but this gripping point of history is still a thrilling watch despite the narrative not quite living up to the performances by its terrific cast.
Words by Ed Budds