GARY Oldman has spent over 30 years sealing his position as one of the greatest actors of his generation, if not the best.
With a jaw-dropping diverse range of roles, his latest one will make jaws drop even further. Here he takes on the role of Winston Churchill in Darkest Hour, a study of arguably the nation’s greatest Prime Minister in the first year of World War II.
The month is May 1940 and Neville Chamberlain (Ronald Pickup) has just resigned. With reluctance, the cabinet is forced to recruit to the job the only man who can earn the support of the opposition, Churchill.
Even as he prepares to be sworn in, the reigning King George VII (Ben Mendhelson) has no faith in him, mentioning his disappointing track record beforehand. Making his territory with the ”Blood, toil, tears and sweat” opening speech at Parliament, the new PM finds himself quickly at loggerheads with his own party.
With Norway, Holland and Belgium falling, France soon to follow and the events of Dunkirk taking place, Churchill’s colleague Lord Halifax (Stephen Dillane) is eager to begin peace talks with Germany with the Italians acting as mediators to salvage the protection of Great Britain.
Churchill refuses believing that the only solution is to continue war against Hitler, bellowing at one point ”you cannot reason with a tiger when your head is in its mouth”.
While Halifax and Chamberlain secretly plot to throw him out, the PM finds himself at a crossroads during the nation’s darkest hour, eventually leading to his ”We shall fight on the beaches” speech in June 1940.
Like many biopics, the key to the film’s success is the strength of the performance of the actor playing the main character and here, Oldman’s interpretation is no exception.
Over the decades, Oldman has played among others Sid Vicious, Joe Orton, Dracula, Norman Stansfield and George Smiley, combining a genuine reliability when playing heroes and villains, both fictional and non-fictional.
Adding Winston Churchill to this list is impressive in itself and this role will go some way to placing Oldman as a genuine contender for greatest living actor, if such a list is compiled.
The first scene we see of him is him being served breakfast in bed, his face appearing as he lights up his custom cigar as a new typist (Lily James) begins work for him. Her nerves get the better and she is the first of a few who fall victim to Churchill’s verbal temper.
Relations between them better as time progresses, similarly to that of the relationship between PM and King. In their first meeting, Churchill refuses the King’s offer of meeting weekly at 4pm, offering the excuse that he is napping at that time.
The strongest scenes are depicted with the War Cabinet, where Churchill is seen verbally sparring with Halifax, at one point reminding him of his position by violently shaking his chair.
In another, the PM makes clear his feelings by demanding Halifax ”stop interrupting when I’m interrupting you!” It is moments like this that the performance is not just impressive to see but downright fun, watching grown men reduced to embarrassment by the words of such an iconic figure.
Of course, as is the case with biopics, the film is predictable and the fact that Kristin Scott Thomas is somewhat underused in her role as Churchill’s wife Clementine makes this a film with its fair share of flaws.
But along with Oldman’s performance, director Joe Wright keeps us watching thanks to the ability of making the situation appear more and more displeasing and harder for Churchill.
Whereas Dunkirk plays a major part in the film, unlike last year’s depiction of the rescue, this one focuses on the perspectives of the government.
Back in 2007, Wright’s masterpiece Atonement focused on the events of Dunkirk notably in a five minute tracking shot, an exemplary sequence in terms of visuals and soundtrack.
Now while there is no element of award-worthy direction here, the scenes depicting the discovery and the subsequent rescue package via dialogue are effective and one key scene depicts the signs that all this was getting to Churchill.
In a toilet, he discreetly phones up President Roosevelt requesting aircraft, notably aircraft the British paid for, to aid with the rescue only to be turned down due to the acts regarding neutrality.
You can read the desperation on Churchill’s face and Oldman also brings vulnerability to his characterization in this one scene.
Those expressions are just some of the many ways we see Churchill with looks of humored, impatience, exasperation, irritation, fury and determination featuring, coupled with Oldman’s delivery of several speeches.
In a career of such versatility, it is almost unfathomable when learning that Oldman has never won an Academy Award. With the Golden Globe already under his belt, it will be a joy to see if he actually can do so in March and one gets the feeling there will be some head-scratching if he does not.
Praise also needs mentioning for Japanese make-up artist Kazuhiro Tsuji who came out of retirement to work on Oldman, helping to contribute to a performance that convinces also regarding appearance, just as worthy of Oscar attention.
Darkest Hour is a biopic of a great man that is enjoyable in general, but is pretty much worth seeing alone for the performance of Gary Oldman, a role which one is confident enough to say will finally make him an Oscar-winner.