With less than a week until the Oscars, my quest to watch all of the Best Picture nominations is getting quite tense. I’ve got three more to go and I’m not really super keen to watch either of them. I managed to watch two in quick succession last week so, if I’m clever with my time, I should be okay. It’s just a shame that the film I’m talking about today marks the end of the list of films I really wanted to see. The Darkest Hour is something I’ve been excited about for months. Combining my love of history and Gary Oldman; what could be better? When the first pictures of Oldman in his full Winston Churchill costume came out months ago, everyone was apparently amazed by the transformation. The picture was placed on the front of newspapers along with the tantalising caption of “we bet you’ll never guess who this really is” or something. I didn’t get the uproar. I mean anyone that looked at the photo should instantly be able to see Gary Oldman’s eyes staring back at them. Don’t get me wrong, the transformation was incredibly but it’s quite clearly the actor underneath all of that makeup. I admit, I have a bit of a soft spot for Oldman so I might be more familiar with his face than many people. It meant that whenever I saw photos from the set of The Darkest Hour I only ever saw Oldman and not one of the greatest Prime Minster’s the UK has ever seen.
Winston Churchill is certainly a fascinating figure. He’s the Prime Minister that was left with the huge task of trying to get us through World War II and faced great competition within his own party. As well as being the only Prime Minister to have been awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature. He’s also known for being slightly gruff and occasionally controversial. Despite all of the negativity that may have surrounded him, Churchill was named the Greatest Briton in a poll taken in 2002 and it’s easy to see why. Especially after watching Gary Oldman’s performance in Joe Wright’s The Darkest Hour. It is completely justified that Oldman has not only won the BAFTA for Best Actor but has been nominated for an Academy Award based on this performance. It is a travesty that it is only his second time of being up for an Oscar. This is a film that is held together thanks to the strength of its main star. Though, that isn’t to say there’s noting else to it.
The Darkest Hour is a war movie unlike most war movies. It spends little time in the heart of battle with only fleeting glances of the troops under threat in France. Instead, this takes place in the halls of Westminster and the bunkery War Rooms. Instead of young men giving up their lives for their country, this deals with grey haired old men sat in rooms bitching about each other. That’s not to say it isn’t exciting: it’s like House of Cards: the Churchill Years. It takes place in 1940 and one of the hardest times during Churchill’s leadership. Britain is at war with Germany and the Labour party have demanded that the current Prime Minister, Neville Chamberlain, resign and let someone stronger take the lead of the war effort. The man they want in charge? Winston Churchill.
Although, he is only offered the position after Chamberlain’s preferred successor, Lord Halifax (Stephen Dillane), rejects the job. Churchill has the support of the Labour party but not of his own. He also favours a strong, offensive approach instead of the road to peace that Halifax and Chamberlain champion. Winston is left believing he knows the best course of action but finds himself alone in the quest to save Britain from the Nazis. With the rest of Europe refusing to fight, Churchill has to make some difficult decisions regarding the safety of the British people. Thankfully, he has the support of his loving wife, Clementine (Kirsten Scott Thomas) and, because of his inspirational speeches, the public.
The Darkest Hour is a powerful and dramatic film that is an unapologetic celebration of the power of words. We see Churchill as the man we’ve learnt about: the strong symbol of strength who encouraged everyone to stay strong in the face of danger. But, thanks to Joe Wright and Gary Oldman, we see a softer and less assured side to the great man. Churchill falters against all of his competition and loses his faith at times. It is only thanks to the people around him that he is able to stick with his instincts. Every actor in this film is strong but there is no doubt this is Oldman’s film. It is the performance of a lifetime and deserves every nomination he’s got this awards season. Hopefully at this years Oscars it can finally be Oldman’s time.
Joe Wright’s film is hinged on its central performance but it is also a sweeping and beautiful film. There are spectacular visual moments to break up the monotony of Parliamentary debate. The scene where the camera shoots up to give a plane’s eye view of the struggling British army is just one example of many. It’s a stunning film. However, it sometimes has the effecting of weighing down the intimate drama coming from Gary Oldman. There are moments when Wright’s aesthetic is a bit too twee and overdone. It may feel a bit unnecessary for the task in hand. Although it isn’t too disastrous. In fact my only major gripe being that it tends to fall towards romanticising Churchill a bit too much. It takes so many liberties with historical fact in order to allow Churchill to become more of a transcendent hero. Take for example the cloying and contrived scene where the Prime Minister meets “normal” people on the Tube. It’s an entirely fictional moment that is only meant to turn Churchill into an everyman type and fully ensure the audience is under his spell.
Still, The Darkest Hour is a fantastic film driven by a phenomenal lead performance. It presents a well-known historical moment and shows the world that our decision to fight was not always an obvious one. There are plenty of Churchill biopics out there and I’m not entirely sure this one treads great new ground. However, I’d happily watch it again. Gary Oldman captivates here. He makes this work.