Gary Oldman is unrecognizable in the Winston Churchill biopic Darkest Hour — both for better and for worse. As Churchill, Oldman gives the kind of performance likely to be honored when awards season rolls around, and one certain to figure prominently in any future look back at his life and work. This will sound like a cliché, but he becomes the Prime Minister, thanks not just to heavy make-up, but due to the way that he carries himself, with a certain heft and harrumph. The actor nails Sir Winston’s natural loquaciousness, his stubborn irascibility, and his unshakable sense that he’s smarter and better than anyone in his social sphere.
Oldman’s performance pulls the audience through the heady month that Darkest Hour covers: the stretch of May and June in 1940 when Churchill was named Prime Minister, as Britain faced the disastrous, demoralizing Battle of France. Like Daniel Day-Lewis as Abraham Lincoln in Lincoln, or Cate Blanchett as Katharine Hepburn in The Aviator, Oldman captures the broadly iconic form of a famous figure while also letting the audience see him as a real human being, who occupied a real space in our world, once upon a time.
But here’s the thing: There are plenty of movie buffs who can’t stand Blanchett’s Oscar-winning Aviator performance, or Day-Lewis’s similarly Oscar-winning turn in Lincoln. They see these takes as stunts — mere feats of imitation, aided by costumes and exaggerated accents. Oldman in Darkest Hour is sure to rub some viewers the wrong way, because he’s buried beneath foam rubber and spirit gum. There’s a legitimate argument to be made that he’s “playing Churchill” in the same way that a Disneyland costumed character “plays Goofy.”
And that’s not the only sticking-point with Darkest Hour. Those not put off by the way the lead actor looks might squirm at the movie’s politics — if they can figure out exactly what those might be. Screenwriter Anthony McCarten and director Joe Wright have made a movie that people on the right or left could either embrace or find “problematic,” depending on how they read it. At this particular point in time, any film in which the main character’s so vocally anti-Nazi is bound to be raise more eyebrows than it would’ve just a few years ago, when actual Nazis seemed less close at hand. But at the same time, there are eerie resonances between Churchill’s rhetoric in this film and the words of contemporary authoritarians. Darkest Hour is heavily invested in the “great man” theory of history, and the idea that at a time of war, the only effective leader is one who’s obstinately batty enough to inspire fear in any enemy — foreign or domestic.
In that way Darkest Hour differs dramatically from Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk, which covers some of the same stretch of World War II, but from the perspective of citizens and soldiers directly affected by politicians jostling for position in Parliament. Wright and McCarten are more concerned with the latter: that insular society of aristocrats who’d known each other and in many cases disdained each other since their university years.
And it’s this same slant that makes Darkest Hour more challenging and even more revelatory than run-of-the-mill awards-season releases. The movie opens with Parliament pressuring Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain (played by Ronald Pickup) to step down, with the expectation that the pious and practical Edward Wood (Stephen Dillane) — the Earl of Halifax, derisively dubbed “Reverend Holy Fox” by Churchill — will step in, unite the parties, and begin making moves toward negotiating peace with Germany. Given how high the stakes were, it’s fascinating to see this pivotal moment in WWII in the context of petty, long-running political squabbles. Many of Churchill’s more antagonistic colleagues were eager to see him fail miserably, in part as belated retribution for his catastrophic Gallipoli campaign in World War I, and in part to sway public opinion for capitulation to Hitler. An entirely different future for our world hung in the balance, subject to how decades-old grudges played out.
Unlike a lot of British directors who’ve built their careers on “prestige pictures,” Wright’s an aggressive stylist. Darkest Hour isn’t as flashy as his Atonement or Anna Karenina, but the director never shies away from theatricality. From dingy, claustrophobic war room bunkers to the disorienting frenzy of Parliament, Wright recreates the both the physical and psychological arenas where the debates over how to engage with Nazi Germany were waged.
This is ultimately why Oldman’s excessive make-up is a feature, not a bug. Darkest Hour dwells at a very particular point between “exaggerated for dramatic effect” and “how it really was.” The star embraces the challenge of that tricky balance, simultaneously playing a cartoon and a person. He’s a quirky, lovable old curmudgeon, set in his ways, who spends much of a typical day drinking, napping, eating, bathing, snapping at his staff, and spontaneously bursting into tears at the sound of his own eloquent words. But he’s also adaptable when it counts, whether he’s reversing his “V for victory” hand signal after his secretary Elizabeth Layton (Lily James) explains that his original gesture means “up your bum,” or he’s being gently chastised by King George VI (Ben Mendelsohn) for lying to the citizenry in his first speech as PM in a misguided attempt to mollify and inspire.
Wright, McCarten, and Oldman underline both the ironies and the stark realities of Churchill’s situation, as an old guard parliamentarian who firmly believed he deserved this appointment (if only as a reward for his long-suffering wife, perfectly played by Kristin Scott Thomas), and then found himself on day one facing a choice between sending thousands of young Brits to die or witnessing the collapse of Europe. Narrowing the larger Churchill story down to a few pivotal weeks allows audiences to experience the pressure he was under, and to grasp more fully why he mattered.
Everything that works in Darkest Hour — the staginess, the emphasis on class bias, the sense that every decision is life-and-death — comes together in the movie’s best scene, where Churchill spontaneously decides to understand his constituents’ experiences better by taking the subway for the first time in his life. There, he has a lengthy exchange with the riders about the progress of the war, and hears from them what it would mean to their national pride if England backed away from a fight. He emerges from the Tube with renewed resolve.
Hokum? No doubt. But it’s the shrewd, sophisticated, effective sort that David Lean and Michael Powell once peddled, to sell patriotism when it mattered most. Overstuffed costume or not, this is a moment that a British actor as venerable as Oldman was born to play.