‘Darkest Hour’ Review: Gary Oldman’s Finest Hour
From this day forward, any serious list of the greatest movie makeup ever will include the work of Kazuhiro Tsuji, who turned Gary Oldman into Winston Churchill in Darkest Hour. The transformation Tsuji and Oldman achieved in this film is nothing short of mind-blowing; it is total, complete, and absolutely convincing. For a scene or two, I looked for seams in Tsuji’s prosthetics. I found none and stopped looking. From that point on, I forgot I was watching an actor and simply accepted I was watching Winston Churchill.
His task, chronicled in the film with lithe but not overstated camerawork by director Joe Wright and crackling dialogue by Anthony McCarten, was one of the most important in the history of Western Civilization: to mobilize the British forces against the rise of Nazi Germany and to ward off the doubters and appeasers in the British government and even Churchill’s own political party. In Darkest Hour’s first scenes, Churchill ascends to the prime ministership, a job he has craved his entire life. But, as he even jokes to his supportive wife Clementine (Kristin Scott Thomas), coming as it does at a moment of terrible crisis, the assignment may be as much a punishment as a promotion.
Churchill’s scenes with Clementine show us his humanity - and his flaws, as he bullies his support staff, including his secretary Elizabeth (Lily James). Though these female characters aren’t given a lot to do, they’re are vital in fleshing out Churchill as more than a purely virtuous leader. Churchill was a great prime minister and a terrible boss; in a curious bit of modern relevance, he also likes to yell at Elizabeth in various states of undress, even, in one scene, emerging dripping wet and naked from the bathtub. (At least he tells her to avert her eyes before he does it.)
Awkward as these moments are, they’re crucial to Darkest Hour’s attempt to demystify its hero, and to make his achievements feel attainable to anyone in the audience. Oldman’s Churchill isn’t perfect; as described in the film, his career before become prime ministership was littered with failures and mistakes, and in the early scenes of Darkest Hour he is wracked with self-doubt about his chances at success. In private he’s almost the polar opposite of the image he projected in his speeches and public appearances. By showing Churchill at his worst as well as his best, Wright pushes the audience to embrace his message, instead of blindly worshiping him.
Save that kind of reverence for Oldman, who is doing god-level work in this movie.. This sort of performance — a great man of history played beneath heavy makeup and heavier accent — has long devolved into awards season cliché. So much of this kind of role seems predicated on the idea that the best acting is actually the most acting. But as showy as that makeup and voice is, and as big and boisterous as Churchill’s speeches are, Oldman finds nuances that few actors do in this sort of role. He’s not all fiery tirades and tearful monologues. His best scene may be a phone call to President Roosevelt requesting more supplies and weapons for the fight to come. His words are collegial, but his face is a mask of desperation. The sequence is the whole movie in miniature; you never, ever let them see you sweat.
The story ping pongs through events previously featured in other war movies; Churchill assumes control of the military just before the evacuation of Dunkirk, so there are echoes of Christopher Nolan’s recent blockbuster, and even Wright’s own Atonement, which included a show-stopping sequence on the beaches of France. The depiction of politics and negotiation as the bedrock of any military campaign (not to mention an unrecognizable lead actor) recalls Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln. But even with the familiar material and an ending that is not in doubt, Darkest Hour is a surprisingly suspenseful experience, thanks to its emphasis on the lesser-known minutia of governance.
Near the end of the film, Churchill ditches his private car on the way to a major speech at Parliament and winds up on a subway headed toward the Palace of Westminster. Commuters are shocked to see the prime minister in their midst; he turns the ride into an informal town hall on his policies and the populace’s willingness to endure hardship and sacrifice if Churchill follows through on his promise to battle Germany to the last man rather than negotiate a surrender. Everyone on the train agrees with Churchill, and he gets off at his stop reenergized for the fight ahead.
This scene is palpably fictional. But that doesn’t stop it from also being palpably inspiring. As it should be; leave the dry historical recitations to books and documentaries. Let movies have their artistry — and Darkest Hour has much more than I expected.
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