Just when you thought there could not anything more to say about World War II, veteran actor Gary Oldman’s tour de force portrays the enigmatic British Prime Minister, Winston Churchill during his “Darkest Hour.” Fortunately, this is not a typical biopic, but a rousing dramatic performance of the initial harrowing month of his first term in 1940.
Less than six months ago, Christopher Nolan delivered a remarkable enactment of “Dunkirk” from a soldier’s point of desperation. Now, director Joe Wright (“Pride & Prejudice”) presents the political side of “Dunkirk.” This one is a war of words and ideas; an intelligent movie filled with oratory and strong personalities, without one shot fired.
In a pivotal moment early in the war, this historical drama centers on an extremely flawed man chosen to lead and unify a nation at their most dire time of need. Within days of becoming Prime Minister of Great Britain, Churchill faced one of the most turbulent and defining trials of any leader at any time.
Without the full support of the King or his own political party, Churchill resists demands to surrender to Hitler. He refused to negotiate a peace treaty with Nazi Germany, “You cannot reason with a Tiger when your head is in its mouth!” He is determined to stand firm to fight to the end against all odds. Meanwhile, the unstoppable Nazi forces roll across Europe, poised to destroy the British army cornered at Dunkirk.
As England faces the imminent threat of invasion, all Churchill must do is inspire and rally the nation, change the direction of his political friends and foes, and change the course of world history. Full of bluster and fire, Churchill is a man of the spoken word. While debating with a political foe, he forcefully bellows, “Will you stop interrupting me while I am interrupting you!”
This has been a long time passion project for writer Anthony McCarten (“Theory of Everything”). The witty dialog is sharp and brusque. There is a strong supporting cast, but this is really a one-man show. Gary Oldman fully immerses himself into the character. During filming, he spent 200 hours in makeup, including “fattening prosthetics” equally half his weight. His wife said she went to bed with Churchill every night.
Churchill was beyond quirky. He was described as eccentric, erratic, outrageous and even rude. The King and many others felt he lacked judgment. Oldman takes that role to an almost cartoonish level, but then seamlessly moderates his emotional nuance to weeping conflicted soliloquies. When ending a futile phone discussion, FDR says, “It must be late there.” Churchill murmurs, “In more ways than you could possibly know.”
Director Wright pulls the audience into the life and times of 1940 England, but Oldman pulls us into the soul of a beleaguered leader that used the power of words for a power to inspire and unite, rather than divide. His primary political foe conceded, “He mobilized the English language and sent it into battle.” The nation Churchill loved, longed for victory. Given the circumstances, they could settle for a steadfast resolve.
In what could be a dull, monotonous movie, Oldman delivers a rousing, yet thoughtful Oscar-worthy performance that will forever define his career. He is surrounded by a supporting cast of Kristin Scott Thomas, Lily James and Ben Mendelsohn.
“Darkest Hour” is 125 minutes and rated PG-13 for some thematic material. Churchill might have been called the “father of his country” as he once said, “All babies look like me, but then I look like all babies.” He was a walking book of quotations that still stand the test of time. Mocking his timid opponent, “He’s a sheep in sheep’s clothing!”
In that single first month of office, England was resurrected from certain defeat to being back in the game. When the U.S. entered the war, Churchill stood with FDR and Joseph Stalin on their way to a glorious global victory. The British people were so enamored with his leadership; at the end of the war, they promptly voted him out of office. Quite right, off you go!
Ron’s Rating: B+
Leigh’s Rating: B