Gary Oldman won his Oscar from his second Oscar nomination for portraying Winston Churchill in Darkest Hour.
The great Gary Oldman joins a short, but increasing longer line of actor depicting the legendary prime minister as the main character in a biopic. Churchill is a figure who has yet to have a great film about him. There's been okay films, even a few decent ones, I'd call this film okay, but there's yet to be one that borders on greatness. He's a figure where there seems to be a hesitation to fully unravel the man, much like George Washington in terms of American figures though at least Churchill has had a few attempts, as even when the film is explicitly about him it rarely truly feel as though you've completely gotten to know the man. This is yet again the truth for Darkest Hour, the second Churchill film of 2017, after Churchill featuring Brian Cox in the role. Both of these films, as well as most of the other films including Young Winston featuring the man's early days, seem to focus on his achievements, or attempted ones, as a historical document rather than attempting a true insight into who he was. This is contrast to films about say Abraham Lincoln where we usually go from the inside out, where we learn about his troubles with his wife, his potentially tragic love affair of old, before we discover the "great man" we all know. There is strangely this distance even in this film's case, which takes a somewhat strange approach to the subject matter.
Lincoln from a few years ago featuring Oldman's contemporary Daniel Day-Lewis as the man, is an exceptional example of probably what this film should have been. In that film Lincoln is fully formed as a person, and in the way he operates and lives as that person we discover more about him, and feel as though we truly get to know him. In this film writer Anthony McCarten, who previously penned the razor thin biopic of Stephen Hawking in The Theory of Everything, makes an odd choice to make this sort of a hero's arc through this story. Although this at least grants Churchill more of a presence within his own story than was granted to Hawkings, it doesn't make a whole lot of sense as an approach nor does it really allow us any insight into the man. It would make more sense, given Churchill's age at the time of the story, to portray a far more decisive leader who needs to work his methods in order to seize power within his party, and build his country up towards victory. In very much the same way we saw Lincoln as the complicated man react to his situation, we should have seen the same for Churchill here. It instead positions him as someone who specifically has some tribulations he must overcome in a two hour running time, and that's the story of this Churchill.
Gary Oldman more than willingly throws his glass cup filled with whiskey and large cigar into the ring of playing Churchill. Oldman is notably a bit different than his most recent contemporaries in that in the cases of Brian Cox, Albert Finney and Brendan Gleeson they have been in at least some general sense are of the same physical type as Churchill. Oldman's is that of a full transformation, as typical for Oldman, with the aid of dynamic prosthetics, which in watching the film again look rather amazing except for whenever Oldman moves his chin down wherein his double chin looks a little too much like a balloon. That's what is though, and what matters more in this review is what Oldman does in the role. He wishes to match the audaciousness of his makeup in capturing the essence of the man in his work, which is quite a risk as evidenced by Timothy Spall's utter failure in the role in The King's Speech while taking a similair approach.. Oldman in terms of the surface mannerisms, such as in Churchill specifically slurred speech, and pronounced gait, captures them quite effectively. Oldman, unlike Spall, doesn't attempt to adhere to a strict accuracy, but rather a kind of accuracy which is usually the approach of all the best performances of this ilk. He sounds like Churchill and moves like Churchill but filtered through Oldman, in a way that makes him feel natural while not being an exact copy.
Oldman has Churchill's personal style well established then the question becomes what shall the film do with him? Well it is mostly to reveal, outside of the arc which I will get to, the different recorded of shades of the man positioned in scenes really only there to show him in these shades. These includes his few scenes with his wife Clementine (Kristin Scott Thomas) where we get the gently pure love the man has for his wife. Oldman certainly delivers this in claiming some nice low key chemistry with Thomas, granting a gentle humor in his slight teasing of her, and does affirm the strength of their relationship even if it is for only for a few scenes that are not given any great importance, they just seem to be there because they are required to be. We get the curmudgeon employer in his initial scene with his secretary Elizabeth Layton (Lilly James) as he chews her out for slight errors in her work. Oldman again delivers on this side of Churchill delivering the ease of the way he is incensed, and the lack of courtesy in Oldman's delivery as he scares the woman away. Again Oldman delivers this as fitting to the style of a man who has been through many a secretary, yet once again this scene seems that of a requirement for a Churchill biopic, as no such situation ever comes up again within the film.
The loving husband doesn't come up again nor the curmudgeon, this is not any lacking on Oldman's part but rather the strict requirements forged by the underwhelming screenplay which proceeds to reduce Churchill down to this somewhat curious arc. This aspect of the film reminded me most of Benedict Cumberbatch's work as Alan Turing in The Imitation Game, in which that film also took a more dynamic character as established by history and simplified it be essentially a "movie hero" in that he just needed to get over his few character flaws in order to become famous for the thing that he is famous for. It is a problematic simplification there and here it is again, but an actor's job isn't there to fix poor writing, it is to try to make it work. Gary Oldman thankfully is a great actor and goes head first into his task towards elevating what he is given. That is Oldman at the very least goes about making some sense of this version of Churchill he is given who everyone seems to doubt yet everyone requires him to be prime minister at this moment. Oldman is effective in fashioning each side of the man that he is allowed within his realizing of Churchill's journey through setting up the way he maneuvers within every group he must work with.
In his most public moments, such as that of addressing the commons or his radio broadcasts, Oldman delivers his speeches with all the grandstanding one should expect from the great politician, with all the vigor needed to drive his people in victory. This contrasts though to his more private sessions of either writing the speeches, or personally examining his place as prime minister. Oldman realizes a more subtle approach properly as he conveys the unease and fear within the man as he examines the colossal task in front of him. Oldman finds the right middle ground in the scenes of meeting with his war staff to discuss their next path finding particularly strong opposition from Lord Halifax (Stephen Dillane) who wishes to sue for peace. Oldman does capture the intensity of these scenes and properly knows how to approach every moment, even though I feel all these scenes are about to become great yet don't get there. Oldman's terrific though in finding the right blend though of the bluster and calm as he tries to enforce his policies, but also intertwined with a greater sense of reality as he must face the hard realities of war A favorite moment of mine actually is Oldman's reaction when it seems like Halifax is baiting him to say the wrong thing, and Oldman in that moment is excellent in revealing a cunning in Churchill as he nips it in the bud. I wish there had been more moments like this, however Oldman does make the most out of that one.
For much of the film the script treats Churchill as he's just leaning to become prime minister and politician in general which makes little sense. For example there is a scene where he meets the French prime minister and awkwardly tries to speak French at first, as though Churchill never had to deal with a foreign diplomat before. As written it is utterly ridiculous, but I will give Oldman credit for doing his best to sell it and even find the bit cheap comedy within it. It isn't all as bad as that scene though in portraying the growth of confidence in the man in both private and public though. For example I find Oldman particularly effective in his scenes with Ben Mendolsohn as the king as his delivery and manner slowly becomes less formal the more they speak to one another. Oldman's work does convey the lessening of tension between the two and understanding as almost friends in their last scene rather brilliantly. Again though this is yet but just one facet, and even that has some silliness where the king goes "go to the people" like it is some concept Churchill could've never imagined, despite apparently giving him the advice originally. It once again though is not the fault of either actor.
Oldman's efforts are more than admirable in delivering what the script demands no matter what it might be particularly with the confidence arc even as silly as it is through the way the film depicts it. Oldman though shows well how that public confidence slowly wains all the more, as it even reduces itself towards his semi-public scenes as the war effort continues to fail. Oldman has some great scenes within this context. His call to FDR is perhaps his best scene in the film where Oldman's face expresses his growing fear brilliantly just as he maintains a certain diplomatic air while speaking though even the fear begins to weigh in there as he receives no real help. The same is true for his scenes in the war council. As much as his yelling scenes, which Oldman is a capital grade A yeller when it comes to incisive yelling, and technically speaking the moments warrant it, it is his quiet moment of resignation that is the most powerful within these scenes. The moment where it appears he will accept a negotiated peace, Oldman does effectively bring Churchill to his lowest point. The film of course takes a rather ridiculous approach as this scene might as well be Rocky Balboa telling Adrian "I'm scared alright" in terms of the structure of the film.
As much as Rocky needs an inspirational dream from Mickey, Churchill needs the same in the form of a group of onlookers riding the underground in London. A scene that might as well be that one from Hook where all the kids in Neverland go "I believe in you Peter" to get Robin Williams's Peter Pan to fight Hook. The scene is unbelievable and is a scene that screams "this never happened" from the moment it begins. It is made even sillier as this instrument of confidence boost for Churchill as though he's in a sports movie. Oldman though to his credit does his absolute best to sell it, and is very charismatic in the scene. He brings to life the energy of Churchill now really playing with the crowd, and being essentially a man of the people. It's a ludicrous scene but Oldman does what he can to at least make some sense of it. This of course leads him towards Churchill to finally secure his confidence to knock out Ivan Drago and defeat the Soviet Union....I mean deliver his final speech and secure his position as prime minister. Now in that final speech Oldman gives it his all, and is effectively rousing. Of course even this the film insists on making a bit silly, even as the speech itself is of reality, by having him walk out of the cheering commons as though he's a badass walking away from an explosion without looking back. Again though with all the flaws of the film I must give Oldman credit for managing his consistently engaging portrayal of this rather thin depiction of Churchill as written. This isn't a definitive Churchill, this isn't Oldman's best work by any margin, but it's a compelling leading turn by an actor who is not given enough of them.