Gary Oldman may finally get that Oscar he has long deserved for Darkest Hour, a movie that seems constructed to do little else.
Oldman is center stage splendid as British prime minister Winston Churchill at a crucial point in World War II, right around Dunkirk time. While Christopher Nolan is saving Allied troops trapped in France, Joe Wright grimly stages Churchill’s eloquent doubt then bulldog ferocity on the other side of the Channel.
Faced with a choice of entering peace negotiations with Germany (i.e. surrender) or fighting on, Churchill scowls down any adversaries too political or pessimistic for his mettle. Churchill is picked for prime minister after wartime decisions of his predecessor Neville Chamberlain (Ronald Pickup) are deemed appeasing to the enemy.
Chamberlain remains a cabinet confidante while Churchill faces opposition from Viscount Halifax (Stephen Dillane) and his supporters of surrender. Their prickly exchanges are balanced by Churchill’s more delicate declarations of courage to wife Clementine (Kristin Scott Thomas) and personal secretary Elizabeth Layton (Lily James).
There is nothing subtle about Oldman’s portrayal or the burnished-oak showcase Wright builds around it. Anthony McCarten’s screenplay gives the actor a constant stream of pithy declarations to grumble or roar in Churchill’s rasp, as if the old man dropped his best quotes in this two week period. Any of Oldman’s tenors can be unintelligible; it’s a relief when a character mentions that. The cigar adds an extra slurp on occasion.
The material doesn’t often suit Wright’s penchant for epic visuals, trapped as it is in Parliament chambers and subterranean war rooms. Conditions are so cramped there’s usually little else to frame except Oldman’s expertly prostheticized face. Two brief exceptions stand out: a tracking shot from despair on the ground to enemy bombers overhead and a fleet of civilian rescue boats heading to Dunkirk, maybe even Nolan’s movie.
Finally, there’s something wrong when a biopic’s best scene never happened in real life. Darkest Hour places Churchill at Great Britain’s most crucial moment on a subway chatting with regular folks about the Nazi threat. Didn’t happen, but it works to show Churchill as something more than an eloquent statue, and the actor playing him as more than a canny impersonator.
Contact Steve Persall at [email protected] or (727) 893-8365. Follow @StevePersall.