Wednesday, 31 January 2018

Best Actor 2017: Gary Oldman in Darkest Hour

Gary Oldman won his Oscar from his second Oscar nomination for portraying Winston Churchill in Darkest Hour.

Darkest Hour depicts the first few weeks of Winston Churchill assuming the position of prime minister of Great Britain during World War II.

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including Young Winston featuring the man's early days, seem to focus on his achievements, or attempted ones, as a historical document rather than attempting a true insight into who he was.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.

62 comments:

Luke Higham said...

Oh well. You've saved yourself from a huge backlash Louis.

Luke Higham said...

Louis: How would you rank the Churchills.

Luke Higham said...

Your thoughts on the cast of Churchill.

Giuseppe Fadda said...

Now I’m really curious to see how Chalamet will fare.

Louis Morgan said...

Luke:

I fear no backlashes, he was always a 4.5 for me here.

1. Brendan Gleeson
2. Albert Finney
3. Gary Oldman
4. Brian Cox
5. Patrick Wymark
6. Rod Taylor
7. Simon Ward
8. Richard MCCabe
9. Andy Nyman
10. Leigh Dilley
11. Timothy Spall

Luke Higham said...

Louis: Thoughts on Into The Storm and the cast.

Luke Higham said...

Louis: Would this rank 9th in your top ten Oldman performances. I assume you preferred his work in Prick Up Your Ears over this.

Robert MacFarlane said...

I really hope you end up liking Chalamet more on the second viewing. To me it’s a very unique performance that exudes much more confidence and personality than we’re used to seeing from young coming-of-age protagonists. He never makes Elio just one thing, he doesn’t fall into the usual trap of angsting it up. Really he’s the glue that held the film together for me, because the editing (or sometimes lack thereof) sure as hell wasn’t.

Omar Franini said...

Louis: is Allison Williams still a 4,5 for Get Out? And what's your rating for Betty Gabriel?

Calvin Law said...

Well I guess this makes me the biggest proponent of Oldman's work here, easily in his top 5 for me.

Calvin Law said...

And I think this review means I'm still in this.

Luke Higham said...

9. Kaluuya
10. Hawke

Calvin Law said...

Luke: the lowest year for Lead Actor 5's since 2012, possibly, but the highest for Actress 5's.

Luke Higham said...

Calvin: 8's still great no matter what year but you never know with the bonus round.

Luke Higham said...

Calvin: It's also the highest for Supporting Actress.

9 for Lead Actor if Chalamet does get a 5.

Calvin Law said...

To be honest I'm thinking of dropping ratings altogether (although I probably won't). They're more something I use to more easily keep track for my rankings, but for Lead Actor this year it's been particularly tricky figuring out a few.

Luke Higham said...

Thinking about it more lately, Joe Wright is abit of a Tom Hooper for me, where I greatly prefer his TV Mini-Series on Charles II with Rufus Sewell (Career Best) over his film work.

Luke Higham said...

Calvin: Only use ratings when you feel comfortable with your decision.

Luke Higham said...

Calvin: Because you do Switch/Change your rankings too frequently.

Calvin Law said...

Luke: I agree, that's why I've taken off my 2017 Tracker for now till I've made my final decisions.

Calvin Law said...

As for Wright I think he's fine outside of that Razzie-snubbed Pan.

Calvin Law said...

Louis: would you say this is the film that has dipped the most from your initial reaction?

Robert MacFarlane said...

Calvin: I stopped doing ratings just because they're too binary. My mind can't keep track of it all.

Anonymous said...

Louis: If Cagney hadn't retired in the early 60's, what roles you could have seen him in during that decade?

Charles H said...

Absolutely agree. I wasn't a fan of this film, it didn't do well for me. But Oldman was close to a five.

Louis Morgan said...

Luke:

Cox - 4(Cox is actually pretty good in going for more of an Albert Finney style approach in that he only lightly approaches the lisp, and his capturing of the physicality of the man is in a very subtle though effective fashion. The problem with Cox's work is just how little he gets to work with due to the painfully repetitive story. Yes Darkest Hour is the better film, however it is funny this film covers near the very end of World War II while the above covered the beginning. Cox basically has to portray one scene after another of Churchill being upset with the top brass not listening to him, again and again. Cox manages to find some nuance in that and he still turns in an effective performance however I wish they had let him expand on it a bit. He's good in what we do see, but once again the film itself underwhelms.)

Richardson - 3(She actually has less to do than Scott Thomas. She's fine in just doing the slightly judgmental yet mostly supportive wife. She just doesn't have much there, and her chemistry is only really okay with Cox.)

Slattery - 2.5(His role is horribly repetitive in just going "No you can't make the decisions Winston." and he really doesn't try to embody Eisenhower. He's not terribly or anything but he's mostly just there.)

Purefoy - 2.5(Also doesn't have much to do. He's not bad but he doesn't make an impression one way or another with his King George.)

It's funny as Into the Storm covers both Darkest Hour and Churchill in a single scene each. This film takes the opposite approach in trying to cover everything during his run as wartime prime minister. It doesn't completely fail in its cover all approach however it does feel like it is in a bit too much of a rush. It at least though has a bit of cohesion in the various points it covers. It does suffer a bit though from pretty standard direction, but it is greatly benefits from the best onscreen Churchill.

Louis Morgan said...

Gleeson - 5(Gleeson is not only the best but he actually comes across most like Churchill does in the footage you can see of the man. In that he wholly captures his very exact and pronounced speech pattern even past the slight lisp. His Churchill is the most commanding out of any and Gleeson is absolutely convincing in bringing to life the man as truly larger than life in these scenes. He doesn't raise his voice in this performance yet carries such an inherent intensity that so well defines the man. He though still manages this certain lightness in the man in his natural realization of his wit which is both sharp or warm depending on the situation. It's notable how well he works within the his strict fit he gives the man as he finds, without every truly breaking down, such a powerful nuance in moments to show the shades of a man who is set in his ways yet still has doubts and faults. Gleeson differentiates every situation so well to really give a fuller portrait of the man than in any version. We see him at his best and at his worst and every facet feels natural to him. It's a truly dynamic performance from him and he most closely allows you to fell like you somewhat understand the man. The film still underwhelms a bit but Gleeson never does in his consistently compelling performance. I'll admit having seen this performance did not help Oldman. )

McTeer - 3.5(Despite the broad reaching nature of the film she really doesn't get much more time than Scott Thomas. She's good though in a very similair way in that she brings a real sweetness in their chemistry together. She however delivers a sharper intensity in their scenes of disagreement. She doesn't reach Redgrave heights in the role, but she's good.)

Glen - 3(He's entirely fine in the role. He's a bit like Purefoy for much of it however I'll give him extra credit for being fairly moving in his final scene, that is almost the same as Purefoy's major scene, and delivers in a far more emotional fashion.)

Yes.

Calvin:

Yes, but that's probably because I saw the film three times in the theater.....

Omar:

They're the same as they were before. I have to admit re-watching the film I felt they perhaps went just a touch too over the top with Rose, as written, in the climax.

Anonymous:

John Cleary (The Subject Was Roses)
Senator Clark (Seven Days in May)
President Hockstader (The Best Man)

Luke Higham said...

Very happy that Gleeson has 5 fives now. :)

Luke Higham said...

Louis: Have you seen the reactions to Nicolas Cage's new film Mandy.

Mitchell Murray said...

Well as with Phantom Thread I'll need to see this once I find a good copy. Like Louis said, Oldman rarely leads his movies and so when he does it should be noticed.

Matt Mustin said...

I saw Phantom Thread, which definitely does not contain any allegories about a certain type of relationship, no way. Anyway, I loved the film, although I imagine that a lot of people are gonna really hate it. Not me, though, Anderson seemingly can do now wrong for me, as I've loved every film I've seen from him. I thought it was beautiful, strange, slightly disturbing and just altogether fascinating. No thoughts on the cast to avoid spoilers.

Day-Lewis-5
Krieps-5
Manville-5

Louis Morgan said...

Luke:

Yes I have, and color me very, VERY intrigued.

Mitchell Murray said...

(Matt) If I may ask how did you see Phantom Thread?

Matt Mustin said...

Mitchell: There's an arthouse theatre where I live, so I saw it there.

Robert MacFarlane said...

Here's my review of Phantom Thread: https://letterboxd.com/koook160/film/phantom-thread/

Mitchell Murray said...

I see. The closest theatre is a good drive away, and I've yet to find an online copy that isn't shot off an tv screen.

Bryan L said...

Mitchell: You have the exact same predicament as me haha.

Anonymous said...

Guess Chalamet is getting a 5

Calvin Law said...

Robert: sometimes the briskest reviews are the best.

Deiner said...

I actually thought Louis was going to give him a 5 rating but I agree, he was great, but not ~that~ great. As for Darkest Hour itself, it had written Oscar-bait all over for me.

Robert MacFarlane said...

Anonymous: I'd hope so, but I have a feeling probably not.

Anonymous said...

Robert: I hope not, but I have a feeling probably lol

Robert MacFarlane said...

I can’t believe I’m the only Chalamet stan here.

Tahmeed Chowdhury said...

Robert: So I rewatched the first 15 episodes of the original FMA. Damn, 'The Night of the Chimera's Cry' (you know the one) packs such a larger punch here compared to Brotherhood.

Anonymous said...

I would agree that Darkest Hour isn't anywhere near Oldman's best but I would be so happy for him if he wins. Always been a welcome presence in his films and I like the sound of him being an Oscar winner.

Luke Higham said...

Louis: Your thoughts on A Taxi Driver and the cast. I see that it's 8th in your 2017 top ten.

Luke Higham said...

Song Kang-Ho for the 10th spot if you're saving him.

Alex Marqués said...

Robert: I love his performance as well, but I haven't seen Oldman yet so I can't compare them.

Alex Marqués said...

Anyway, it's not the kind of actor/role/movie that usually gets love in this blog.

Michael McCarthy said...

I'm pretty sure everyone on this blog thought Chalamet was good, it's just that for most of us he didn't go that extra mile.

RatedRStar said...

I thought Chalamet was really good, I also thought that Armie Hammer was really good also and was perfectly cast as the posh pretty boy type, I cant imagine anyone else in either Chalamet or Hammers role.

Bryan L said...

Louis: Your 70s and 00s cast/director for Call Me By Your Name?

John Smith said...

Chalamet is my favorite out of the nominees. Loved his performane.

Charles H said...

Daniel Day Lewis is actually my runner up for the year, really loved the film.

Giuseppe Fadda said...

Have to save my thoughts on Chalamet for my blog, but I can say I thought Hammer was absolutely wonderful in the role and so well cast. And I think I liked the movie more than anyone else here.

Robert MacFarlane said...

Tahmeed: I know, right? Brotherhood tries to stiff it all in one episode, the original takes its time to make sure that you really feel the full impact of it. Not to mention the original is much better-directed overall.

RatedRStar said...

Timothée and Armie xxx =D so adorable, ok ill stop now.

John Smith said...

I want the review now hahaha.

Your tearing me apart Louis...

Matthew Cofrancesco said...

John Smith: Did you just watch the Disaster Artist or something

Matthew Cofrancesco said...

Tommy Wiseau is that you?

John Smith said...

Oh, hi Matthew.

Louis Morgan said...

Luke:

Loved a Taxi Driver, even if it pulls maybe a bit too much of an Argo near the end, but honestly I was tempted to go higher with its ranking however I just wanted to give myself more time with the film. I really don't want to say more since I just want to recommend the film as I went in with no expectations and thought it was just going to be this comedy about the journey of a Korean taxi driver and a German reporter, then the film ended up flooring me. This should have been in the foreign language lineup, as I greatly preferred to the three nominees that I've seen.

I am saving Song Kang-ho.

Kretschmann - 4(On a side note I feel he and Nikolaj Coster-Waldau need to brothers in something. Anyway Kretschmann gives a strong performance here by essentially opening himself up slowly throughout the film. He just slowly reveals more overt emotions throughout to the point that even though he and Song don't really have a lot direct lines between each other it becomes a really moving relationship by the end of the film.)

Bryan:

Call Me By Your Name 1970's directed by John Schlesinger:

Elio: Dennis Christopher
Oliver: Treat Williams
Mr. Perlman: Dirk Bogarde

Call Me By Your Name 2000's directed by Tom Tykwer:

Elio: Paul Dano
Oliver: Ben Whishaw
Mr. Perlman: Kevin Kline