Darkest Hour has Oscar bait written all over it – I’ll be surprised if Gary Oldman who plays Winston Churchill doesn’t win the best actor award this year.
But it’s not just his incredible, immersive performance that merits the label. Director Joe Wright and writer Anthony McCarten have created a prestige biopic about an iconic British prime minister. The film is handsomely produced. It has a sweeping soundtrack by Dario Marianelli that effectively pushes audience buttons. And a swiveling camera – Wright is especially fond of overhead shots and long tracking sequences. Darkest Hour is sturdy, straight-forward storytelling and this is not a criticism.
The driver engine of course is Oldman who is nowhere to be seen. Oldman convinced the make-up artist Kazuhiro Tsuji to come out of retirement and endured four hours of make-up for 48 consecutive days. He has transformed entirely into the jowly, rotund man who was scary and steely but also compassionate and loving. Our first glimpse of Churchill is him having breakfast in bed, which includes a glass of wine. He is barking orders and he reduces his young, new secretary to tears. His wife Clementine, played by the exquisite Kristin Scott Thomas, says he is a man like any other.
But of course he isn’t. Darkest Hour is a portrait of Churchill’s first month as prime minister in May and June of 1940. Western Europe is in imminent danger of collapse. More than 300,000 British soldiers are trapped in Dunkirk. Hitler and his million strong army are marching toward England. Churchill is battling with his own war cabinet and being pressed to opt for negotiation and surrender. At one point, the beleaguered prime minister roars – you cannot reason with a tiger when your head is in its mouth.
Wright sets this up an inspiring drama, which culminates in Churchill’s watershed ‘we shall fight them on the beaches’ speech, which we also heard at the end of Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk. In fact, Darkest Hour works as a nice companion piece to that film. Unlike Nolan however, Wright opts for easy sentimentality. McCarten invents a scene in which Churchill takes the tube for the first time in his life and finds strength in the courage of ordinary Londoners. It’s so cheesy that a B-grade Bollywood director would have rejected it. But there is enough to enjoy here. Especially Oldman’s towering achievement.