Film review: Darkest Hour (5/5)
Gary Oldman described taking on one of the most iconic of characters as the role of a lifetime, though he admitted that he initially turned down the part of Winston Churchill, Britain’s wartime Prime Minister, for fear he couldn’t pull it off.
He had nothing left to prove with his fine pedigree of roles from Sid Vicious in Sid and Nancy, Lee Harvey Oswald in Oliver Stone’s JFK and Count Dracula in Bram Stoker’s Dracula.
Oldman approached the part of arguably Britain’s greatest statesman from the outside in. He was reluctant to gain 60 pounds in weight and instead persuaded make-up artist Kazuhiro Tsuji out of retirement.
Once the prosthetics were applied Oldman was never seen by cast and crew out of character and that included the director Joe Wright (Atonement, Pride and Prejudice).
Tsuji’s achievement is astounding, although it must be said that Oldman’s own research was meticulous and he captures Churchill’s every gesture without turning it into a caricature.
The action is focused on a few months in 1940 and opens with Churchill dictating from his bed to his new and terrified employee Miss Layton played by Lily Thomas (Downton Abbey) who initially flees.
In steps Kirstin Scott Thomas (The English Patient, Four Weddings and A Funeral, Nowhere Boy) as Clemmie, Churchill’s long-suffering but devoted spouse and an elegant counterpart to the boorish Churchill, who persuades him to be more considerate.
Meanwhile, rumours abound that he might be the next PM and they tensely await word from the Palace as other names are considered.
Scripted by Anthony McCarten (The Theory Of Everything) there is some dazzling dialogue, a mix of the historical and apocryphal, as Churchill attempts to win round his cabinet who wish to appease Hitler through mediation with Italy’s Mussolini.
He barks to the war cabinet: “You cannot reason with a tiger when your head is in its mouth.”
Most of the action takes place indoors and especially underground as the war cabinet including Churchill’s predecessor Neville Chamberlain played by Ronald Pickup (The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel) and detractors in his own party convene in the basement of Number 10.
King George (Ben Mendelsohn) finds himself hosting elaborate lunches at the Palace with the PM every Monday where Churchill’s epicurean excesses are given full reign.
Mendelsohn is convincing as the king and we see a pragmatic character who dreads his weekly meetings while considering exile to Canada, and then stands firm with Churchill.
As Belgium falls and France is about to follow, Churchill’s personal frailty begins to creep in and the famous “black dog” descends, producing some of the most touching scenes featuring Oldman’s interactions with James.
It seems his only political ally is Shakespearian actor Samuel West’s Sir Anthony Eden. This is a nuanced and understated performance.
A relative newcomer, James brings just the right mixture of fear and admiration to the part as she also finds herself on a stairwell taking notes while Churchill is in the bath and comes out “in a state of nature.” Her tenacity sees her invited into the map room as the PM plots his next moves and tenderly attempts to allay her fears.
On the production side, the cinematography by Bruno Delbonnel (Amelie) is absolutely in keeping with the era as it conveys the claustrophobia of a sepia-toned era and there are some really nice close ups of Churchill unravelling as well as a particularly impressive rooftop scene as he stares up at the planes.
This is very much Oldman’s film as he dominates each scene. Having already picked up a Golden Globe and now nominated for nine Baftas, the country’s darkest hour could well be Oldman’s finest hour.
Darkest Hour (PG) 2 hours 5 mins