Darkest Hour – 2017
Director Joe Wright
Screenplay Anthony McCarten
Starring Gary Oldman, Kristin Scott Thomas, Lily James, Stephen Dillane, Ronald Pickup, Ben Mendelsohn
I have been a fan of Gary Oldman since I first saw him in Criminal Law. In it, he plays an arrogant lawyer who gets a lesson in humility when he gets a guilty man free. That one could barely tell who was the more insane between his Lawyer Ben Chase and Kevin Bacon’s murderous Martin Thiel meant for some real entertainment for the viewer and some incredibly vicious hamming it up between the two leads. Many consider this one of the worst performances of his career. The inimitable Ebert liked thought it was a good performance “lost by the runaway use of gimmicks.” I didn’t ever care as much about the film as I did, Oldman.
He’s stayed a veritable goldmine of acting skill and talent through the years. Many of his best performances being in sub-par films. This time the performance is superlative, and the film is almost as good. His Winston Churchill defines one of the great leaders of this or any time during a time which not only defined him, but gave the whole world the example of a country with such character as to stem an evil tide that seemed sure to overwhelm the world. If there is a singular reason the world doesn’t speak German now, this movie shows us the reason in singular living color.
As a start, we have 3 million German troops at the Belgian border about to poor into France. The opposition party in England has just helped force a no confidence vote for Neville Chamberlain (Pickup). Halifax (Dillane) smartly avoids stepping into the void at this crucial juncture, knowing it to be a thankless role to be known as the leader who surrenders or leads them into oblivion. Instead, they let aggressive and vociferous Churchill (Oldman) fall into what seems to be a trap.
The mess Churchill inherits is compounded by the fact that much of the British Army is stuck in France (most ending up in Dunkirk) and there seems to be no way to get them away from troops that surround them from most sides.
We are introduced to our hero through a familiar trope of the new secretary, Elizabeth Layton (James). We’ve seen this route so many times, it’s almost easy to discount her character weren’t she so well known in English history. Through here, we are allowed the commoner’s view of greatness. This is exemplified so obviously, we literally see him break her through a door she’s not meant to see to give her, or the viewer, perspective few would seem to have.
His relationship with his wife (Scott Thomas) is one of the most colorful aspects of the story. She balances him and makes him humble and whimsical at once. It is here that we see the range of Oldman in great prosthetic makeup. His performance is pushed to the level of master here not just for the magnificent speeches, but for the fact that it is a multi-faceted man below all of the bluster and confidence.
If anything, we get the glory of a great actor portraying a great person. Each are at the height of their power and influence. Oldman does a marvelous job of showing a man who is in balance between doing what he’s asked and doing what he ought. There are a litany of stodgy old voices telling him what he should do, but none of them have the courage to put their name on the line.
Other fine players in the mix are Mendelsohn, playing a most sympathetic and attentive King George, who overcomes his reservations with Churchill to become an ally at the most crucial time. Everyone else in his group of predominantly old, wilted white men, are leery of him and his movement from conservative to liberal and back.
“He has 100 ideas a day. 4 of them good.”
Dillane is excellent in the role of antagonist. His perspective seems at once reasonable and slimy. He has a grasp on the reality of the situation, and hopes that by acquiescing to the obvious power rising, he will be able to survive the invasion in some role that will seem like power.
Wright has made a film that plays a good contrast to Christopher Nolan’s superior Dunkirk. We see the threat that looms at home before it strikes abroad. So much is at stake, the tension is unbearable, yet Churchill finds a way. Good Lord does he ever.
Even so, one wishes there could be something even more comprehensive to cover the events that so shaped the world as we know it today. The perspective of this film on its own is a glorious study of one magnificent man at his most challenging moment. It’s Oscar bait, but only in a limited capacity. It almost feels like 3/4 of a movie. Everything is good, but only as far as it reaches.
The inclusion of James Layton is perhaps the most egregious example of filler. It would have been nice to see more substance of her, Scott Thomas and Mendelsohn. Added to Dunkirk, it tells more of the story, but if anything, we get the definite understanding that there is more we want to know. Or need to know. So, to quote the great man himself, “the lesson will be learned…”
For now, enjoy Oldman at his best. I hope this is just the beginning of our understanding that he is one of our best actors and we need to see him pushed to limits like these. This exercise is a breeze for him, obviously. He hits every note in the sweet spot, and it is a wonder to behold.
(**** out of *****)