Darkest Hour review: Oldman’s Brightest Day
Darkest Hour review: In a film meant to chase the allure of Oscar gold, Gary Oldman stands above the rest.
Actor, musician, and vampire novel co-author Gary Oldman has won a lot of awards in his life. Enough to fill a bookcase. Enough to beat an army of zombies to death and still have awards to spare (should the need ever arise, you never know). But one award he has never received is an Oscar (despite a close call in 2012 with his performance in Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy). There’s a good chance that will change with his turn as Winston Churchill in Darkest Hour.
After all, that’s what the movie is made for.
Director Joe Wright’s Darkest Hour is pure Oscar bait. It checks off all the boxes. It’s classy, recounts a significant historical moment in time, features talented actors in roles big and small, focuses on a bigger-than-life real person, and even has a triumphant moment that feels like a glorious moment in history but was actually fictitious. If the film ends up on Netflix, it will appear in the same group with Lincoln, The Theory of Everything, The King’s Speech, Ray Charles, etc., etc. That doesn’t guarantee Oldman an Oscar, of course, but he sure as hell deserves one.
Darkest Hour tells a familiar story with familiar characters, but from a different angle. It follows Churchill during his first days as Prime Minister starting in May 1940, as the Nazis were spreading over Europe like a cancer and the last traces of organized resistance were operating on optimism rather than solid planning.
The film begins with Churchill replacing history’s punching bag Neville Chamberlain (Ronald Pickup), who will forever be remembered for his disastrous policy of appeasement toward Hitler. Through something of an upset, Churchill, who always opposed Hitler even before it was fashionable, is tapped to take over – even though most people don’t like him.
Within days of taking office, Churchill was forced to face one of the most pivotal moments in British history, and by extension, the world. The Germans were rolling through the French and British armies, and the last hope for defending Great Britain was trapped on a beach in the French town of Dunkirk. And while anyone with a passing familiarity with history probably knows the outcome, at the time the possibility of Churchill being forced to surrender on behalf of Great Britain was very real.
It’s easy to look back and see the decisions made during that period by people in power in heroic terms through rose-tinted lenses, but the truth is they were (mostly) normal people facing impossible situations. And that’s where Darkest Hour exists.
Oldman’s Churchill is far from the caricature that we have come to accept of the man. History portrays him as a bulldog with resolve of steel, but there were moments when the weight of the world was seemingly on his shoulders – and in some very real ways it was, as he wrestled with the possibility of a near-total Nazi victory.
In terms of story, this film could act as a companion piece to Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk (another Oscar favorite), as they both focus on a narrow stretch of history that unfolded over a few weeks. That may seem like a strange coincidence to have two films so tightly related come out within months, but that era is so well documented in entertainment that it’s not all that surprising.
If you wanted to, you could chain together several movies and TV shows over the last few years and they would fit fairly naturally. Start with The King’s Speech, jump over to Darkest Hour, and continue through Dunkirk and you have a fairly well integrated and continuous story. If you wanted to continue you could add in movies like Battle of Britain and Hope and Glory, and from there, take your pick of war movies that offer the British point of view – there are literally hundreds. Top it all off with Netflix’s The Crown and you can cover 20 years in a few days.
Darkest Hour offers a new take on a familiar story, and it does it well. Wright manages to keep the focus on a handful of characters, including Churchill’s confidant and wife Clementine (Kristen Scott Thomas), his blue-collar secretary Elizabeth Layton (Lily James), his political rival and pro-surrender advocate Viscount Halifax (Stephen Dillane), the outgoing Prime Minister Chamberlain (Pickup), and the wary King (Ben Mendelsohn).
The supporting characters are exactly that – supporting. None of them are given much development or history, and they all exist in relation to Churchill, who is the focus of the film in every way possible. Despite that, the cast excels with limited material – especially James, Dillane, and Mendelsohn, who are able to stand up and even match Oldman’s performance – to a degree.
Oldman transforms into the role – part of that is due to excellent (and also Oscar-worthy) makeup and prosthetics paired with his own physical transformation, but it’s more than that. He adopts facial mannerisms and physical movements that make you forget you are watching one of the most famous and easily recognizable actors in the world. That alone should earn him applause, but it’s more than that.
There is a scene where Oldman’s Churchill is simply sitting in silence, and yet it is compelling. He manages to oscillate between the famous bulldog and a man dealing with decisions that could crush other people almost at will, but always within the confines of the story.
The film itself is a little heavy-handed at times, and there are more than a few moments that veer towards cheesy (especially during the climax), but Oldman alone is worth the price of admission. Whether you know the real story or not, if you have an interest in the history of the era – or you just like watching good movies – Darkest Hour should be on your list.
Darkest Hour review conclusion
Darkest Hour is destined to earn several Oscar nominations, including Best Picture, possibly Best Director, and a few technical nods for makeup and the like, but this is Oldman’s movie. He dominates it from start to finish. The supporting cast manages to keep up with him and the story gives them all enough of a vehicle to frame Oldman’s performance.
Even if it is in the conversation Darkest Hour is not the best film of the year, but it doesn’t disappoint either. And neither does Oldman, who will need to clear off some space in his award collection.
Darkest Hour is rated PG-13 with a running time of 125 minutes.