It’s quite rare for movies about the same sequence of events to compete in the same awards season.
Two films this year tackle World War II’s Dunkirk evacuation crisis: Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk and Darkest Hour. While Nolan recreates the physical conditions of the rescue efforts, Darkest Hour focuses on the politics behind it, led by the newly elected Prime Minister Winston Churchill. Together, they offer the most complete cinematic record of the event available. Of course, Oscars aren’t awarded for that; what matters is how well these films hold up as separate works, and what they offer the cultural zeitgeist.
What Darkest Hour offers is the second major depiction of Winston Churchill in two years, following John Lithgow’s acclaimed turn in The Crown. Beneath the top hat this time around is Gary Oldman, in the earliest days of Churchill’s appointment as Great Britain’s Prime Minister. It’s an appointment rife with controversy; nearly every man in governmental and constitutional power dislikes him for his impulsivity, his brashness and his shameless ambition. Even King George VI (Ben Mendehlson) has nary a kind word to say about the man forming a government in his name. Regardless, Churchill is chosen to lead the country through the imminent threat of Hitler’s army breaching their shores and laying waste to the island as they did the rest of Europe. Two members of Churchill’s war cabinet, the recently deposed Neville Chamberlain and Lord Halifax, see peace negotiations as the only way out, but Churchill balks at the idea, refusing to acquiesce to Hitler. As news from the front becomes more dire by the day, Churchill finds himself alone against his government, his King and even his political allies. Weighed down by the world’s expectations and his own self-doubts, the only salvation are the people closest to him, and the British people who share his spirit of no surrender.
Darkest Hour’s greatest accomplishment is being the vessel for which Gary Oldman gives the year’s most transformative performance. The actor disappears completely into the role, visually unrecognizable and vocally indistinguishable from the legendary politician. Oldman captures the most Churchillian of traits with ease: the bluster, the intimidation, the sheer power of his voice and presence. The real work lies in the layers beneath that well-known persona. When Churchill is faced with failure, self-doubt and genuine kindness, Oldman is truly stunning, allowing slivers of disarming fear and vulnerability to come across his face and waver his booming voice. With incredible control of every scene, his bravura performance is not only the best of his career, it should be considered the gold standard Churchill portrayal. Oldman is obviously the performance to ride home about, but Kristin Scott Thomas does lovely, understated work as Churchill’s devoted wife Clementine. Thomas adds touches of sweetness and humor that helps soften Oldman’s overwhelming energy. In a less competitive season, Thomas would be joining her co-star as a future Oscar nominee.
Ironically, Darkest Hour suffers a bit amidst Gary Oldman’s brilliance. The film itself lacks its lead actor’s commanding presence, building around him a middling and unfocused narrative that struggles when he’s not in frame. The political intrigue is compelling on cinematic and historical levels, but at times feels too removed from Churchill to resonate. The film’s biggest problem is perspective: instead of honing in on Churchill’s, director Joe Wright bounces around to other, less interesting characters. The worst case is Lily Collins’ Elizabeth Layton, Churchill’s secretary; Wright can’t decide if she is an audience surrogate or a bit player in her boss’ saga, and having her play both roles is distracting. Not framing Layton against her relationship with Churchill makes some of the nice moments they share feel slightly unearned, as is the case with King George, who features in what is supposed to be one of the film’s watershed emotional moments. Another distraction is the over-stylized aesthetic of Wright’s war scenes, which doesn’t quite gel with the overall gritty, realistic feel of the film..
Darkest Hour is a good film that is truly elevated by Gary Oldman’s excellent, Oscar-worthy performance. Without him, the film simply offers a mildly successful retelling of the most fraught days of Winston Churchill’s political career. Oldman has been sailing through the awards season, and his Best Actor Oscar is pretty much assured. The film’s lack of similar impact puts its chances at the other categories in a more precarious position. If it lands on the Best Picture shortlist, it will likely be on the strength of its indomitable star.