There have been so many cinematic depictions of war-weary London, May 1940, that one might be forgiven for momentarily believing that they were actually there in the flesh rather than the stalls. Few of these, however, have come as close to conveying the contemporary emotional turmoil as Joe Wright’s Darkest Hour. At the beating heart is Gary Oldman and an all-time great performance.
For a male actor, embracing the role of Winston Churchill has become as requisite to the later life CV as King Lear. Many have emerged in the past two years alone but who could have anticipated Oldman as so indomitable a successor to Gambon, Spall and Finney?
Under layers of seamless prosthetics – not to mention a thick body suit – the actor is almost entirely unrecognisable. It is, however, through his portrayal of the former Prime Minister’s mannerisms, kind and comical yet brusque and often rude, that the performance comes alive. This is no fusty turn, Oldman’s Churchill is lively, energetic and surprisingly light of foot. Certainly, never has an actor so well captured the aura of the icon quite this effectively. With Oldman’s career-best work at the helm, Darkest Hour is rendered unfailingly compulsive as a viewing experience. A unanimously excellent supporting ensemble helps too.
Offering a neat pairing for Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk, the film presents the adjacent crisis to the Western front occurring back in Westminster. Wright opens his film with the resignation of Neville Chamberlain (Ronald Pickup) and the resultant rise of Churchill, introduced first through his iconographic attributes: the bowler hat and cigar. Supported by his steadfast, smart as a whip, wife, Clementine (Kirsten Scott-Thomas), Churchill descends on a divided Parliament, brilliantly captured in noirish tones here, with talk of war and notions of a fight to the bitter end.
Dunkirk is familiar territory for Wright, with Atonement having featured a five-minute single take scene on the pre-evacuation beaches, so this time his focus is the claustrophobia of the musky war rooms. The camerawork is thrilling in its mobility, whilst Wright (who refers to himself as a show-off) continues his penchant for beautiful shot artistry – enhanced here by cinematographer Bruno Delbonnel. Watch out for dizzying over-head descents and delightfully picture-perfect shots of Churchill in an elevator and of him delivering a red-light-bathed radio broadcast.
Boasting terrific orchestration from Dario Marianelli, Darkest Hour offers a pleasingly modern take on the destitution of early-wartime Britain, packed with humour as much as turmoil. Pointless end titles that assure that the Allies went on to win the war are all too frequent in such war fare as this but a great success of the film is just how well it is able to draw the viewer into the moment to genuinely fear the worst.
Far from overdoing the grim and political, meanwhile, a script by Anthony McCarten is careful to place humanity front and centre. Allusions to Churchill’s omnipresent black dog are well balanced with nods to his infamous wit – including that infamous response to a summons by the Privy Seal: ‘Tell His Lordship: I’m sealed on The Privy and can only deal with one shit at a time’. Oldman, of course, thrives in such moments.
Needless to say, Wright’s Darkest Hour is Oldman’s finest.