From the instant he appears, in the flash of a match in an unlit room as he lights his cigar in bed, we forget Gary Oldman is playing a part. He transforms into Winston Churchill, the bulldog face and jowly rumble of a voice immortalized in history, the wordsmith with Shakespeare and Cicero committed to memory — a quip, insult or neatly-turned phrase always on his tongue.
In “Darkest Hour,” Oldman, director Joe Wright and screenwriter Anthony McCarten give us the iconic Churchill, and the one his contemporaries and peers will recognize as well — hard-drinking, mercurial, “in love with the sound of his own voice” and sure his soaring rhetoric will be enough, when plainly, at first at least, it wasn’t.
Britain’s “Darkest Hour” came in May and early June of 1940, when the appeasing Conservative government of Neville Chamberlain collapsed, along with France. And the only acceptable alternative for the opposition parties joining a coalition government was the bellicose and often-blundering First Lord of the Admiralty, Churchill.
His own party preferred the unctuous Viscount Halifax (Stephen Dillane), a practical man whose practicality sounded a lot like the appeasement of the unpopular Chamberlain (Ronald Pickup). The lisping Halifax (Churchill calls him “Holy Fox,” and not admiringly) was a great favorite of the stammering King George (Ben Mendelsohn), who despised Churchill.
But even his enemies wanted the Goat of Gallipoli (Churchill’s greatest World War I blunder), with a failed Norwegian intervention freshly added to his resume, to take power. Things were so bleak that he was sure to fail, leaving the way open for more reasonable leadership.
Wright (“Atonement,” “Hanna”) and cinematographer Bruno DelBonnel (“Inside Llewyn Davis”) give us a gorgeously literal “Darkest Hour,” showing us the raucous debates of a dimly-lit parliament, a world pre-florescent (or LED) lighting in Buckingham Palace, Churchill’s country estate (Checkers) and the underground bunkers of his war rooms.
The gloom infects Churchill as well, a man who has lived “since the crib” for this moment, who spent the 1930s shouting into the void that Britain needed to prepare to defend itself against global fascism (and communism). Screenwriter McCarten (“The Theory of Everything”) gives us his stumbles, his high-handedness, loopy impulses and drunken, slurred speech, letting all comers name the old man’s shortcomings.
“I wouldn’t let him borrow my bicycle!”
His one champion lives under his roof, the mother of his children, wife Clementine (a steely Kristin Scott Thomas).
“When youth departs, may wisdom prove enough.”
The story is more or less seen through the eyes of the mumbling old grump’s new secretary, played by Lily James, as a young and over-matched typist forced to endure tongue-lashings and insults because she comes to recognize the dire straits they’re in. She’s the very embodiment of “Keep Calm and Carry On.”
Oldman lets us see the despair as Churchill pleads with President Roosevelt (David Strathairn, uncredited) over the phone and cajoles the unimpressed, defeatist French. We hear the stumbling thoughts and incoherent sentences that take over as the repeated doses of whisky take hold.
Still, Oldman’s Churchill carries the weight of the world right to his breaking point, while never losing sight of the infamous wit.
“Will you stop interrupting me while I am interrupting you!”
And McCarten humanizes that wit by showing the careful deliberations of Churchill dictating, editing and polishing his speeches, “deploying the English language” as a weapon of war.
Oldman is blessed with a better movie than Brian Cox, whose “Churchill” captured the leader as he wavered and meddled with invasion plans, losing his nerve right before D-Day. But Oldman’s performance goes beyond uncanny impersonation and into the realm of inhabiting a man. Watch the playful way he and Mendelsohn exchange formalities when he’s summoned to take control of the government, the sentimentality he gives this patrician blowhard who ruled a country whose working class people he had virtually no connection to.
The story overlaps, neatly, with Christopher Nolan’s brilliant “Dunkirk,” the year’s best film. “Darkest Hour” is more a character portrait than a cinematic immersion in a place and time. But thanks to Oldman’s unerring portrayal of a deeply flawed man rising to face a crisis and inspiring a nation to rise with him, it’s an equally worthy reminder that there have been bad times before today’s, and that people, great and small, saw them through.
MPAA Rating:PG-13 for some thematic material
Cast: Gary Oldman, Kristin Scott Thomas, Ben Mendelsohn, Stephen Dillane, Lily James
Credits:Directed by Joe Wright, script by Anthony McCarten. A Focus Features release.
Running time: 2:05