Right up there with Jesus Christ and Abraham Lincoln, Winston Churchill has been portrayed on film countless times and by countless actors. In just the past seven years, Churchill has been portrayed at least three different times, by Timothy Spall, Michael Gambon, and Brian Cox, the last of which was also released in 2017. With Darkest Hour, we get a portrayal of Churchill that is unlike any other. In this film, Churchill takes center stage, and the approach taken to his character attempts to identify who the intimidating and fascinating prime minister was. And to Spall, Gambon, Cox, and the other hundred actors who have played the role, step aside, because Gray Oldman has arrived, giving what is sure to become the quintessential performance of Winston Churchill.
Darkest Hour tells the story of the first month of Winston Churchill holding the position of prime minister. The film begins with the king and members of parliament reluctantly appointing Churchill for political reasons, and Churchill gladly accepting. Very quickly, the ongoing Second World War begins to escalate, and Churchill is forced into making his first decisions as prime minister. As British forces are cornered at Dunkirk with Nazi armies quickly approaching, Churchill is pressured by his cabinet members to consider signing a peace treaty with Hitler. Churchill seeks wisdom from his wife, his typist, and the king to determine how to make the most important decision of World War II.
The single most important thing everyone is talking about with Darkest Hour is Gary Oldman. Between critics, awards, and the nature of the film’s trailers, it’s safe to say that Oldman’s performance as Winston Churchill has been sufficiently hyped. With this much hype, disappointment typically follows. What’s incredible, though, is that Oldman’s performance is so good, it does anything but disappoint. From the trailers, we can already see the impersonation of Churchill Oldman does, but when you Darkest Hour, you discover that what Oldman does goes so, so much deeper.
Oldman had a lot of things working in his favor. Firstly, makeup and prosthetic artist David Malinowski completely transformed Oldman’s appearance in some of the best makeup I’ve ever seen. Typically, when an actor is given transformative makeup, there are at least two or three scenes where you catch them from the right angle and can clearly see the actor hiding under their fake skin. Darkest Hour doesn’t feature a single one of these moments, making it confusingly good. The other main thing Oldman had working in his favor is that director Joe Wright completely structured this film around Oldman’s performance. Oldman is given all the best scenes, all the right angles, and all the perfect moments to capitalize on, essentially showing off just how good he is. Thanks to Oldman’s performance, Joe Wright found how he was going to tell this story: by portraying Winston Churchill better than he ever has been before.
In many ways, this sometimes strained emphasis on getting Churchill just right was both the rise and fall of Darkest Hour. It worked because Gary Oldman’s performance is so good that nearly anyone would be happy just watching him go for a couple of hours. This is a performance that’s good enough to deserve an entire movie’s worth of attention, and because Wright chose to give the performance exactly that, we get to fully appreciate the performance. The problem was that all this attention given to Oldman was at the expense of every other thing in the movie. Throughout the film, we get glimpses of gems like Kristin Scott Thomas and Ben Mendelsohn’s performances, or the film’s subplots with Lily James’ character or King George VI’s fear. With each of these, however, glimpses are all we are given before the camera is turned back at Oldman.
The other place the film suffered in giving so much attention to Oldman is in the very telling of the story. Joe Wright does a fantastic job of giving us a look inside the mind of Winston Churchill and telling the story that way, but outside of Churchill’s mind, it is difficult to keep up with what is going on with the other characters or what the current stage of the war is. Because of this, Wright is left to resort to a couple shamelessly expositional scenes which are only there as a chance for the audience to catch up.
There are some major flaws in the narrative of this movie, and while some of them are exceedingly problematic, none of them are fatal. From the get-go, Joe Wright let’s us know with a climactic introduction that this movie is going to be entirely focused on Churchill, and in many ways, entirely focused on Gary Oldman. Because of this, Wright somewhat primes us for what the movie ultimately gives us. It’s still disappointing to only receive the main course with no appetizers, sides, or desserts, but it is nevertheless satisfying. And the entire reason it is still satisfying is because Gary Oldman is just that good. Seriously, I don’t think there’s any way to overstate just how great Oldman is in this movie. So, while Darkest Hour is far from perfect, Gary Oldman is more than enough reason to not only see it, but to love it.
I give Darkest Hour a 7.8/10.