Gary Oldman’s performance dominates Darkest Hour rather like the figure of Winston Churchill towers over the mythology the modern British psyche.
Heavily disguised in prosthetics and armed with the tools of an impressionist, Oldman nevertheless delivers a Churchill brimming with fresh insights, twinkling with mischief and bristling with determination.
Director Joe Wright sets about the story like a ticking clock thriller, set over Winston’s first few weeks in office in May 1940 and building up to Dunkirk and banishing any continued moves for appeasement. It recalled the way Aaron Sorkin used to do a West Wing, with lots of sharp, shadowy discussions leading up to the big speech, the big moment. As such, the film clips along, dipping into the personal to reflect it onto the wider stage of the politics.
And there’s a lot of politics here, as Churchill wrestles with the right decision and how to get that decision through the layers of obstruction, mostly in the form of his own Party, still in thrall to Neville Chamberlain (Ronald Pickup) and Lord Halifax (Stephen Dillane). With the scenes in the House of Commons, Wirght unleashes his flair for theatricality and composition; it’s in the bunkers of the War Rooms, though, that this film is won and it’s where Oldman injects his charisma, his light and shade.
It’s quite the portrait, this film. The images frame Winston the way a perceptive painter might – not wholly flattering but fascinated with the bumps and flaws. We see the breakfast in bed, the blustery eccentricities, the whisky and soda. But we also get the hairdryer treatment of his rhetoric, “sending the English language into battle,” as the script would have it.
Doing Churchill is like playing Hamlet, and Oldman’s take on it is an actorly treat, giggling at getting his V sign the wrong way around, bellowing about single space typing, dictating from the bath. Both actor and character are building up an image, a war chest of tricks in order to triumph. And triumph they do.