September 11, 2017
‘Darkest Hour’ Review: Gary Oldman Gives the Best Performance of His Career [TIFF]
It’s been a surprisingly big year for Dunkirk. Earlier this year, Lone Scherfig’s Their Finest and Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk both told stories about the evacuation of British troops from the beach at Dunkirk during World War II. Now Joe Wright, who also chronicled the events of Dunkirk in Atonement, tells yet another version of this story with Darkest Hour.
Darkest Hour is the behind-the-scenes look at not so much the evacuation itself, but the events leading up the evacuation. The film’s main focus is British Prime Minister Winston Churchill. Like Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln, Darkest Hour isn’t so much a biopic of a famous politician but rather a week-in-the-life type tale. As the film opens, parliament has lost faith in Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain (Ronald Pickup) for underestimating the nazi threat.
Chamberlain is forced to resign, and the only man the parties seem to be willing to back is Churchill. But while he may have party support, Churchill will soon find his new position is even more challenging than he could’ve imagined.
Gary Oldman plays Churchill, and he is indeed as magnificent as you’ve likely already heard. This likely won’t come as much of a surprise, since Oldman is one of our great living actors, ut this may be his finest performance to date. Buried in makeup that’s never distracting, Oldman becomes Churchill. There’s plenty of opportunities here for the actor to go over-the-top, yet he finds just the right balance between Churchill’s fiery continence and his quiet self-doubt.
Darkest Hour runs the risk of falling into standard historical drama territory, but Wright and screenwriter Anthony McCarten work hard to avoid that stigma. McCarten’s script is so meticulously structured that it would’ve fit right in on the stage, but Wright avoids stuffy staging through his cinematic direction, pointing his camera into smoky chambers where powerful words echo off hallowed walls.
Chamberlain and Lord Halifax (Stephen Dillane) want Churchill to consider entering peace talks with Hitler before the Germans invade England. With France close to surrender and the British soldiers beaten back towards the sea at Dunkirk, things seem hopeless, and Chamberlain and Halifax are willing to hear Hitler’s terms. Churchill, in turn, wants none of it – he knows Hitler is a monster, and hearing Hitler out would be tantamount to surrender.
Darkest Hour brings us into Churchill’s world through his new secretary Elizabeth Nel, played by Lily James. On first introduction, Elizabeth seems like a character who will simply fade into the background and be mostly neglected the way Churchill’s wife (played by Kristin Scott Thomas) does. But Darkest Hour keeps Elizabeth in focus, and some of the best moments of the film are the quiet scenes that Churchill and Elizabeth share together.
When Darkest Hour began production, no one could’ve guessed how prescient the story would be. But scenes like the one where Churchill talks to passengers on the London Ground to get the mood of the country, where the crowd cries they refuse to give into fascists and would rather fight them off at every turn, come off as even more meaningful now in 2017 then they would have a year ago.
Overall though, the power in Darkest Hour rests on Gary Oldman and how he uses Churchill’s words. There’s plenty to dislike about Churchill’s politics, but the man was a great orator, and Darkest Hour stresses the power of Churchill’s words, and words in general, through several key moments. But anyone can go in front of a crowd and deliver words – it’s whether or not the speaker believes the words that gives them their power. Oldman understands that, and brings it to his performance.
Most of all though, Darkest Hour makes Churchill human. It removes him from the black and white photos of history and shows the conflicted man underneath. It may at times border on hagiography, yet it’s hard to deny the power on display here. Darkest Hour may not be one the best movies of 2017, but it is one of the most powerful. When Churchill cries “Never surrender!” during one of his final speeches, it’s a message worth embracing.
/Film Rating: 7 out of 10