It would seem that the stars aligned in 2017 to give us a spate of World War II dramas just as resurgent fascist movements were brought into the public eye. And while Joe Wright’s Winston Churchill award-bait feature may lack the visual spectacle of Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk, Darkest Hour does sport the finest portrayal of the embattled prime minister ever committed to celluloid. Gary Oldman isn’t just the star here, he’s the whole show — and that show couldn’t be more unfortunately timely.
Spanning just a few pivotal weeks in late May 1940, Darkest Hour covers Churchill’s rise to power over Neville Chamberlain (a surprisingly sympathetic Ronald Pickup) as the Nazis overrun Belgium and France. Churchill faces stiff opposition from his political opponents in the form of Chamberlain and the Earl of Halifax (Stephen Dillane), whose attempts to appease Herr Hitler are initially supported by King George VI (Ben Mendelsohn). As far as historical dramas go, the stakes don’t get much higher than this source material — but rather than engaging in the sort of aggrandizing spectacle of Dunkirk, Wright, to his credit, keeps his film’s scope limited to the halls (and bunkers) of power.
While Wright’s decision to restrain his settings does the film quite a few favors, his heavy-handed direction very nearly undermines the picture’s many virtues. His aggressive use of overhead camera angles and title overlays specifying the date detract greatly from what should be a character-driven piece, as though he doesn’t trust the inherent tension of his subject to carry the film’s dramatic weight. Lily James and Kristen Scott Thomas are both excellent as Churchill’s secretary and wife, respectively, but rather than allowing their position as foils to expose his protagonist’s inner conflict, Wright resorts to extreme close-ups, an overblown score and a ridiculous scene in a subway car to make his point.
If Wright’s direction leaves something to be desired, Oldman’s performance does not. His Churchill is a nuanced blend of gritty determination and crippling self-doubt, a bulldog with the softest of underbellies. While exemplary makeup effects render Oldman’s physicality almost unrecognizable, there’s no mistaking his eyes — he owns the character as much as he embodies it. It’s a remarkable turn that will undoubtedly find Oldman in contention for an Oscar come March, and I’m hard-pressed to come up with another performance that could compete this year. I don’t believe I’ve ever recommended a film solely on the basis of an individual performance but, like Churchill, sometimes the right man comes along at the right time to change minds. Rated PG-13 for some thematic material.
Opens Friday at Fine Arts Theatre.