MPAA Rating: PG-13/ Genre: Historical Drama/ Stars: Gary Oldman, Ben Mendelsohn, Kristin Scott Thomas, Lily James, Ronald Pickup, Stephen Dillane, Nicholas Jones, Richard Lumsden, Jeremy Child, Samuel West/Runtime: 125 minutes
If there was ever a list of actors created who I felt best fit the definition of a chameleon then Gary Oldman should definitely be at the top of that list. Indeed whether it was his turn as fiction’s most iconic vampire in Francis Ford Coppola’s 1992 Dracula, Commissioner James Gordon in Christopher Nolan’s much loved Dark Knight trilogy, a Russian terrorist going toe to toe with President Harrison Ford in Wolfgang Petersen’s Air Force One, or as Sirius Black in several of the Harry Potter films here is an actor who, with the help of his theater background as well a long-standing relationship with make-up and effects, has been able to create some of the most memorable characters of the last 30-plus years in film. Now as the lead in Joe Wright’s newest outing Darkest Hour, Oldman has decided to undertake what could arguably be his most impressive disappearing act thus far: playing legendary British Prime Minister Winston Churchill at the beginning of World War 2. Indeed this is a role that, due to sharing absolutely no physical characteristics in common with the legendary Prime Minister could’ve been an unequivocal disaster. Yet Oldman manages to pull off the seemingly impossible and not only puts on one of the best performances of his career, but also does so in a film that also shapes up to be one of the great historical dramas of Winter 2017. Indeed armed with not just an amazing performance from Gary Oldman but an entire ensemble of gifted actors as well as a phenomenal sense of time and place, Darkest Hour is an impressively told story that not only shines a light on an immensely important time period to world history, but also succeeds in feeling tremendously relevant as well.
The plot is as follows: the film takes us to May of 1940, where the British Parliament has found itself in a tumultuous position. This is due to not only the looming threat of the Nazis, but also Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain (Ronald Pickup) is essentially being forced to give up his position following the colossal failure that was his strategy of appeasing Adolf Hitler. So it is during this time we see that while Viscount Halifax (Stephen Dillane) was the Conservative Party’s preferred choice to replace Chamberlain, they quickly found that if they wanted to appease the Labor and Liberal parties in order to get what they wanted they were left with no choice but to name a man named Winston Churchill (Gary Oldman) as the successor instead. A controversial figure who was equally notorious for his day drinking, always having a cigar in his mouth, and just plain boorish behavior, Churchill quickly finds that he does not have the immediate acceptance of the people, a lot of his fellow Parliament members, or even the reigning King George VI (a not bad Ben Mendelsohn), and immediately finds himself facing what any normal individual would only see as a series of impossible choices. So it is that within just a few weeks, Churchill finds himself not only having to try and organize an evacuation to save the lives of thousands of soldiers stranded at Dunkirk, and face down the threats from the Conservative Party who demanded consideration of negotiations with Adolf Hitler, but to also in the process become not just a leader for that time, but an inspiration for ALL time…..
Now director Joe Wright does a fantastic job of outfitting his film with a truly top-notch cast, featuring not only the names mentioned above, but also Kristen Scott Thomas as Churchill’s sharp, just as quick-witted wife Clementine, and Lily James as Churchill’s young, yet passionate assistant Elizabeth Layton. Nevertheless brilliant as they all are, though, I feel Darkest Hour’s more fitting name could quite easily be “Gary Oldman IS Winston Churchill”. I say this because due to an awe-inspiring makeup job done by a man named Kazuhiro Tsuji the idea of the actor named “Gary Oldman” completely disappears from your mind as soon as Churchill is introduced on screen, simultaneously eating an impressive, and quite delicious-looking, English breakfast in bed while also harshly barking at the newly-hired Ms. Layton. Of course from this auspicious beginning we find that instead of digressing and becoming one-note Oldman only becomes more and more captivating from the point on till film’s end. Indeed whether he is at the radio microphone reciting the real Churchill’s own words to instill confidence in his people, engaging in an intimate, desperate phone conversation with United States President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, asking for any kind of assistance that can be provided, or even conferring with the British people in one truly moving scene Oldman manages to find the man behind the leader and doesn’t so much give us a performance as he does somehow bring Churchill back from the dead and let him exist in our world for 125 minutes, but what a glorious 125 minutes it is!
Now had Oldman brought Winston Churchill to life with the same kind of performance he gives here, but then the rest of the movie was just simply a sub-par affair then while Oldman would still be Oscar-worthy we would still be disappointed in the rest of what we had just watched unfold on screen. It pleases me to tell you then that Darkest Hour is not that way in the slightest and in fact truly delivers in spades and aces. Indeed given how much we know, or at the very least we are taught, about this point in history most of us can simply only imagine the terror that must have been felt by Europeans with particular regard to the French and British during the awful rise of the Third Reich. Yet what director Joe Wright does brilliantly is that he recognizes that fact and then seemingly transports you to that period of time and, upon arrival, immediately makes the tension unbearably palpable, and then manages to successfully maintain that proverbial doom-and-gloom atmosphere for the entire film, even while peppering the film with lighter moments, such as Churchill’s famed reverse “V For Victory” photograph. Also of equally impressive note is the fact that even if you may, or may not, know how events ultimately transpired that doesn’t matter in the slightest in regards to relieving the tension this film’s atmosphere provides as your connection during the film’s runtime with the iconic Churchill is so strong that you find yourself constantly perceiving events through his eyes as they occur.
Now unlike Christopher Nolan’s also masterfully-done Dunkirk, which showcased a very different side of this same time period and events, which came out earlier in 2017, I feel that it should be stated that although Darkest Hour isn’t a war film that possesses a foundation built on both explosions and spectacle it is nevertheless absolutely gorgeous to look at all the same. Indeed with all the due credit in the world going to both the cinematography and production design departments, there is absolutely no shortage of elegance and magnificence to be found in the scenes set in such locales as Winston Churchill’s aristocratic home or King George VI’s palace. Yet at the same time the movie also does a brilliant job of offering up a terrific sense of contrast by also showing us the stark, dark, and more shades of Grey than Christian could ever fathom, war rooms located underground where some of the undoubtedly gravest and most crucial decisions were made in regards to the future/ survival of not only Great Britain, but potentially, all of Europe as a whole as well.
All in all it wasn’t that long ago that Gary Oldman finally managed to receive his first Academy Award nomination and while he didn’t take home the golden statue that night, I feel that this was a terrific film to take home the gold for his performance in. Indeed this isn’t just true “next level” stuff from an actor who let’s just say it has honestly, even in the worse films on his resume, been putting out “next level” stuff for his entire career. This is honestly a performance that 10 years from now I could see being shown to the next generation of up-and-comers as an example of what a true master of their craft could hope to accomplish. It is that iconic and when you combine this legendary performance with an incredibly gripping plot as well as terrific work from a game supporting cast you get one heck of a film. On a scale of 1–5 I give Darkest Hour a solid 4 out of 5.