The Academy Awards are around the corner and two of the best picture nominees happen to concern one of the bleakest moments in modern history: “Dunkirk” by Christopher Nolan and “Darkest Hour” by Joe Wright. Both concern Britain’s dire straits in the opening years of WW2 and the vital naval evacuation at the aforementioned French port which guaranteed England and its few European allies a fighting chance going forward. Nolan’s “Dunkirk” was about the retreat from evil. Wright’s “Darkest Hour” is about the advance, albeit psychologically, to confront evil, to whatever end.
Gary Oldman, despite his name, is only 59. Yet you would never guess from his eerily convincing makeup of the legendary Prime Minister Winston Churchill. It’s not just the look, but the near perfect recreation of his atypical voice. At times, it can be hard to tell what Oldman is saying, and the people surrounding Churchill are probably in agreement with me.
Churchill’s historical struggle, to replace a disgraced PM and prepare England for invasion by the Nazis are the main threat, the true conflict surrounds Winston himself and how he interacts with those in and out of politics. Churchill’s sketchy track record is one of the major weapons used against him, the tragic failure of the WW1 Gallipoli campaign being the prime example. His manner of speaking and behavioral tics doesn’t convey the kind of leader Britain leads not just to those in the film but to the audience as well. How can a man this off-putting and flawed possibly be of help to anyone?
Churchill is, however, a smart man. When his wits are about him he could stir up a good speech and fight tooth and nail to make his position clear, even if everyone else in the room doubted him for legitimate reason. The movie wisely avoids sanctifying the man and lets us dip into uncertainty and despair, just like how matters really came across all the way back in 1940. It lets Churchill’s real-life triumph feel all the more rewarding and relieving rather than simply inevitable as a historical piece runs the risk of proceeding.
Joe Wright’s direction, particularly in the visuals helps the picture stand apart from others, though not as strikingly as Nolan’s “Dunkirk.” One standout moment is intertwined with Churchill performing a statement over the radio that is incongruent with the reality of the war. A bombed-out battlefield taking shape into a dead, bloodshot soldier’s face. It succeeds at feeling different without risking pretentiousness.
“Darkest Hour” probably won’t win best picture but Oldman’s take on Churchill, as his best actor nomination implies, is worthy both of honor and even of the price of admission. Like Spielberg’s “Lincoln,” it portrays a pivotal moment in a man’s life full of standout moments and lets that one short yet dense frame of time tell us all that matters about one of history’s great leaders.