2017, PG-13, 125 min. Directed by Joe Wright. Starring Gary Oldman, Kristin Scott Thomas, Lily James, Ben Mendelsohn, Stephen Dillane, Ronald Pickup, Richard Lumsden, Nicholas Jones.
REVIEWED By Steve Davis, Fri., Dec. 15, 2017
With his jowly countenance and stout physique, British statesman Winston Churchill resembled an English bulldog, a plucky creature who growled words of encouragement during rousing BBC radio broadcasts that inspired a nation to resist the threat of German invasion shortly after the outbreak of World War II. As Britain’s chief of state at a critical juncture in Western history, he rallied a beleaguered commonwealth to never surrender in appeasement to a reviled Adolf Hitler. In the historical drama Darkest Hour, an unrecognizable Gary Oldman slips into Churchill’s sallow skin to replicate this wartime hero during his early tenure as prime minister, down to the chomp of his cigar. It’s an uncanny physical transformation, as if a holograph from 1940 were beamed to the present day to perform the role. Cognizant of this startling effect, the film tantalizingly anticipates Oldman’s initial appearance as members of Parliament debate who should succeed a disgraced Neville Chamberlain, finally revealing the actor’s presence with a struck match lighting a stogie in a darkened bedroom, followed by a raised morning shade illuminating both him and a scotch-and-egg breakfast. It’s a clever introduction to a performance that may be too clever for the movie’s own good.A nagging question persists throughout Darkest Hour: Is Oldman’s compulsively meticulous turn here anything more than a brilliant impersonation? The answer is yes, but it’s a performance that always stands apart from the rest of the film. Director Wright captures the chaos of a country facing the imminent threat of bloodshed on its home soil (the Blitz was soon to come), and demonstrates a fondness for tracking and aerial shots to depict the Brits’ losing war on the Continent, culminating in the retreat at Dunkirk. But he can’t convincingly realize Anthony McCarten’s screenplay’s ineffectual attempts to humanize the irascible leader through relationships with his supportive wife, Clementine (a sorely underused Scott Thomas, given only a handful of scenes), and the awed typist who records his speeches (James). When the narrative sends Winnie underground to poll the commonfolk on the subway so he might understand firsthand his constituency’s views on war vs. peace, the movie hits the brakes and goes off the rails, screeching. To be fair to Wright: Not even the most gifted of filmmakers could make this completely fabricated scene plausible. It’s as if a third-rate Frank Capra suddenly took over and retitled the movie Mr. Churchill Rides the Tube. Harrumph, indeed.