Darkest Hour movie review: Gary Oldman's performance as Winston Churchill is undeniably entertaining
Darkest Hour is the third film from 2017 about Operation Dynamo after Dunkirk and Their Finest.
If you liked John Lithgow as Winston Churchill in The Crown, prepare yourselves for a more entertaining version of the man played by Gary Oldman in Darkest Hour. Consider the ‘Bring me EVERYONE’ line from Leon – Oldman as Churchill gives you that kind of intensity for two hours here. The film itself is fairly well made under the tutelage of bombastic English period drama expert Joe Wright.
Darkest Hour is the third film from 2017 about Operation Dynamo after Dunkirk and Their Finest. While the Nolan film put us inside the fire and fury in fighter jets and boats, Joe Wright’s film takes us through the fire and fury of the politics behind the scenes.
Wright makes the setup immediately clear – Hitler has devoured most of Europe has targeted England next. Within the country there is turmoil as the Prime Minister has been booted out and the Foreign Secretary Halifax (Stephen Dillane) is increasingly dismayed at the prospect of the UK surrendering to Hitler. Churchill is made the PM and he hits the ground running – tasked with drafting a plan to thwart Nazi forces and also come up with a strategy to solve the Dunkirk situation, apart from providing hope to his countrymen through his writing. Things become even more messy as Halifax begins to support the idea of surrender to avoid war, while Churchill believes in the opposite.
Churchill’s secretary (played by Lilly James) becomes the primer and the audience’s eyes to the man as he fidgets and mumbles his way through scene after scene of tension. Wright does exceedingly well in showcasing bureaucracy and internal politics as Halifax essentially becomes the villain of the film, undermining every step of progress that Churchill makes. This is also a visually interesting film, offering almost painterly point of view shots and stylish transition scenes that feel fresh in familiar biopic plot trappings. By now we’re desensitized to costume and World War 2 imagery with the hundreds of films we’ve seen, so it’s a testament to Wright’s filmmaking proficiency that he manages to being something visually unique to the table.
But the best visual effect of the film is Oldman of course. Here’s the thing about his performance – it is undeniably entertaining, but it often walks the tightrope between influential and cartoonish. Every speech of his is delivered with over the top rousing spectacle, but one can’t help notice the extra effort put into landing the punch – the facial quivering, the chair grabbing, the spluttering, the swooping camera angles that contort his body into an otherworldly creature in a suit. Maybe it’s because the Churchill persona itself was cartoonish in nature, and it’s hard to expect restraint from a man who spoke like he has beads stuck in the back of his throat. Oldman’s presence is so overpowering that it leaves the supporting cast like Churchill’s secretary and his wife Clementine (Kristin Scott Thomas) in the dust. The great Ben Mendelsohn who plays King George VI is also chewed up and spat by Oldman’s histrionics in every scene they share.
But it’s easy to be swept away by the grandiloquence, and like many period films this is a crowd pleasing bit of cinema with just enough drama to find yourselves manipulated and entertained. It’s important, however, to not expect a truly authentic portrayal of Churchill because his morbidly racist persona is sanitized and turned into a war hero. Remember, he’s the same guy who said Indians are beastly people with a beastly religion, and he also bragged about shooting Sudanese ‘savages’ in their heads. Perhaps we’ll see that side of Churchill in cinemas one day, and Oldman, with his flair for playing lovable assholes will be even more perfect for the part.
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