As weird as it might sound, 2017 was truly the year of Dunkirk. The most obvious example would be Christopher Nolan’s World War II epic, which is poised to pick up a few Oscars. A film fewer people have likely heard of was the charming comedy Their Finest, which interpreted the Dunkirk evacuation from a fictional perspective. Now we get Joe Wright’s Darkest Hour, a film that’s similar to Dunkirk in some respects, but completely different in others. Dunkirk observed the evacuation from land, sea, and air, keeping the focus on the soldiers, as well as the civilians that risked their lives. We saw little of the political aspect, however, with Winston Churchill’s address to the nation entering the equation at the last minute.
We see little combat in Darkest Hour, but much more of what took place behind the scenes. At the center of the film is a magnetic performance from Gary Oldman as Winston Churchill. In the same vein as the Dunkirk evacuation, Churchill is a figure that’s been gaining a great deal of attention lately. Michael Gambon portrayed the British Prime Minister in 2016’s Churchill’s Secret. John Lithgow won a Primetime Emmy for his transcendent work as Churchill in The Crown. Oldman’s portrayal earns comparison to Daniel Day-Lewis’ turn as President Lincoln, ensuring he’ll take home the Best Actor Oscar.
Given his rich body of work, it’s surprising that Oldman has only received one Academy Award nomination for Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy. From his breakout role as Lee Harvey Oswald in JFK to his iconic performance of James Gordon in The Dark Knight trilogy, he’s reigned as one of the most versatile actors of the past couple decades. Even when he’s at his worst (Red Riding Hood, Lost in Space), he’s easily the most entertaining person onscreen. While Darkest Hour features memorable supporting performances from Ben Mendelsohn as King George VI, Kristin Scott Thomas as Clementine Churchill, and Lily James as secretary Elizabeth Layton, Oldman is essentially why the movie works, offering quite possibly the most complete depiction of Churchill to date.
The incredible makeup effects may play a significant role in transforming Oldman into Churchill. However, all the prosthetics in the world wouldn’t make a different without the right actor. Nailing his voice, body language, and other tendencies down to a tee, Oldman studies Churchill from every angle. We see him evolve from a grumpy curmudgeon almost no one has any faith in to the passionate leader that Britain needed in the wake of World War II. We’re also offered a glimpse of Churchill’s down-to-earth side, particularly during a scene where he takes the subway with his fellow citizens.
Between Anthony McCarten’s sharp screenplay and Dario Marianelli’s thrilling score, Wright has made a film that manages to be exciting, despite being dialog heavy. There’s a real sense of urgency as Churchill contemplates whether to negotiate with Adolf Hitler. What it lacks is the human touch that made Dunkirk so special. Even with only a few conversation pieces, Nolan’s film oddly enough seemed to have more of an emotional investment and character development. That might be because Dunkirk was about the influence a multiple people while Darkest Hour is about the influence of one man. Of course if Churchill taught us anything, it’s that one man can make a difference. Likewise, Oldman’s performance is what ultimately makes this movie.