Oldman Rumbles In Lively Churchill Pic "Darkest Hour"

Among the actors to play fabled United Kingdom prime minister Winston Churchill on film: Albert Finney, Brendan Gleeson, Michael Gambon, and Brian Cox, each lending an obvious physicality and proper Britishness to the role. “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy” actor Gary Oldman is not an obvious fit for Churchill at all, making his turn as the iconic Englishman in Joe Wright’s “Darkest Hour” all the more rousing. His casting is a ruddy middle finger to stodgy prestige pics everywhere, his typically over-the-top acting style a cozy fit underneath dazzling make-up work.

Buttoned-up period piece-isms (a la Tom Hooper’s “The King’s Speech”) are blessedly hard to come by here.

Scribe Anthony McCarten (“The Theory Of Everything”) smartly constrains his screenplay to one month in the life of his subject, from Churchill’s appointment to Prime Minister on May 10, 1940 through his famous speech to Parliament on June 4. Although World War II was only in its infancy, the Allies would soon be backed into a corner (events in the film overlap with Chris Nolan’s recent “Dunkirk”), requiring the kind of robust leadership that an increasingly frail Neville Chamberlain (Ronald Pickup) could not provide.

Political oddity Winston Churchill was the first choice of few – the conservative was unpopular with many in his own party – but both Lord Halifax (Stephen Dillane), who summarily turned down the position, and Chamberlain believed him to be the candidate who could unite the most political parties. From a tensely humorous exchange between King George VI (Ben Mendelsohn) and Churchill early in the film, the aim of Wright and McCarten is clear: to elucidate the spine-compacting pressure that comes with a starring role on the world’s stage. And to highlight just how unprepared we mere mortals are for it.

Oldman’s performance is every bit as blustery as the pic’s trailers suggest, but not at the cost of multi-dimensionality. The actor’s experience playing against type as Commissioner Gordon in Chris Nolan’s “Dark Knight” trilogy has apparently rubbed off on him; his Churchill never outsizes the other characters in the room and he makes Churchill’s dialogue seem as considered as it probably was. The actor also paints a picture of a stubborn man concealing pockets of self-doubt; unsure to the end that the will to defeat fascism is enough.

Wright’s supporting cast adds considerable depth to both subject and story. Mendelsohn’s screen time is terrific, our protagonist’s uneasy rapport with King George VI providing both laughs and an entry point into the psyche of Churchill’s critics. Kristin Scott Thomas is just as compelling as Winston’s wife and anchor Clementine, albeit underutilized. And Lily James is ideal as Elizabeth Layton, Churchill’s personal secretary. Her scenes feel like movie’s greatest creative liberties but they effectively flesh out the quirks and insecurities of her boss, James’ innate incorruptibility bringing out a warmer side of a man some consider a warmonger.

Apart from Oldman and his make-up team, the film’s MVP might be director of photography Bruno Delbonnel; his visuals prove indispensable to Wright’s historical pressure cooker. A scene that depicts Churchill’s first radio address as Prime Minister sees him bathed in red light and shadow, the weight of the microphone in front of him signaling the weight of the world. It’s a brilliantly choreographed moment, evoking both the seriousness and silliness of one man holding the spirit of a nation in his hand. Oversimplified, yes – the entire movie is necessarily short on nuance, political or otherwise – but unforgettable all the same. Delbonnel puts us right there in the room – a front row seat to how the wheezing voice of a cigar-sucking 65-year-old might credibly turn the tide of history.

Despite some narrative doldrums in the pic’s home stretch (a sequence that features Churchill interchanging with British civilians on the London Underground is broad and overly sentimental), the whole of “Darkest Hour” is taut and transportive. The pejorative “Oscar bait” is immaterial when it’s this good.

-J. Olson

Rating: ★★★★ out of ★★★★★ (Very Good)

Release Date: November 22, 2017 (Limited)
Studio: Focus Features
Director: Joe Wright
Screenwriter: Anthony McCarten
Starring: Gary Oldman, Kristin Scott Thomas, Lily James, Stephen Dillane, Ronald Pickup, Ben Mendelsohn
MPAA Rating: PG-13 (for some thematic material)