Gary Oldman’s Performance is the Cornerstone of Darkest Hour
Let’s be perfectly clear about Darkest Hour. The real reason to see this movie is Gary Oldman’s performance as Winston Churchill. It’s as close as you can get to a bid for an Oscar nomination without actually having a neon sign pointed straight at it. That being said, Darkest Hour is actually a damn fine movie and while the focus might be primarily on Oldman, director Joe Wright makes sure to give him the support he needs to pull off an incredible performance in an incredible film.
The film follows the early days of Winston Churchill’s time as Prime Minister when he received the job at the worst possible time. The film paints his appointment as a reluctant concession on behalf of Parliament and the King since no one else really wanted it at the time. In that regards, Darkest Hour is very much a film about rising to the occasion. Of course, Churchill didn’t exactly overcome great personal odds by climbing his way out of the gutter to become one of the key figures during the Second World War, but he was put in a position where the weight of the entire world was thrust onto his shoulders suddenly during a time when no one knew what the right move would be.
In that regards, Wright is sure to make Darkest Hour a very heavy film. Visually speaking, it relies heavily on the lighting, often surrounding Oldman with darkness to show his solitude. One scene in particular where he addresses the nation for the first time over the radio has a red light signaling him that he’s live on the air that encompasses him and gives the character great pause as if it were a warning of what was to come. The rest of the movie beautifully paints shadows throughout the frame, giving it an almost noir-like appeal at certain moments. Altogether, it sets a deadly serious tone for the film. After all, lives are at stake, even if they are hundreds of miles away.
While the tone might be heavy, luckily Churchill is not. Oldman disappears into the role as the famed orator, only surfacing in the moments when his eyes lock onto the camera and his features emerge only for a second. The rest of the time he is completely unrecognizable as he puffs his cigars, drinks his whiskey, and mumbles as he gathers his thoughts. There is a brilliant balance of charisma and uncertainty when it comes to the character. Though he suffers doubt and fear in the face of a monster working his way towards the United Kingdom, he never lets his rivals see it, only those he trusts dearly. It’s this balance that gives Oldman’s performance such depth. It’s not a love letter to Churchill, but rather a fond remembrance of a man who did great things when his country cried out to him in need.
Those expecting a war movie will be sorely disappointed, as not much action is seen other than men in uniforms with too many medals circling Churchill like buzzards. Instead, the real battle is the undermining our hero faces at the hands of political rivals who feign at looking after the country’s best interest which coincidentally also furthers their own political agendas. In this way, he’s forced to fight a war on two fronts. The real question is, which is worse Hitler or the people using Hitler for personal gain? Spoiler alert: It’s always Hitler.
Darkest Hour doesn’t follow the entire career of Churchill. Instead, focusing on his first month in office when he was faced with the Nazi invasion of France and the Dunkirk incident. I won’t go into too many details about Dunkirk, mostly because there’s another movie that came out this year you can watch about that, but essentially Churchill had to find a way to evacuate 300,000 troops without naval or air support. It was very much one of the darkest hours for England during WWII, and so the film is aptly named.
The real downfall of Darkest Hour is that Oldman is so damned good it’s difficult to remember anyone else from the movie. Overall, it’s a movie that was much better than I expected, given that typical Oscar bait films put all their eggs in one basket (see Meryl Streep’s The Iron Lady). While it’s a very serious film, Churchill was known for his wit which shines through casting a light for the audience to follow. It’s a refreshing film, given that it’s become so difficult these days to remember what inspiring leadership looks like. One that I can highly recommend, and not just for Oldman’s performance (though that’s worth the price of admission alone).