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Review: Gary Oldman shines as Churchill in The Darkest Hour

PUBLISHED: 16:49 12 January 2018 | UPDATED: 16:49 12 January 2018

Gary Oldman as Winston Churchill in Darkest Hour. Photo: Universal Pictures/Focus Features

Gary Oldman as Winston Churchill in Darkest Hour. Photo: Universal Pictures/Focus Features

Archant

The 27 tumultuous days, which led to Churchill’s impassioned cry for the British to fight on the beaches and in the streets, is dramatised in Joe Wright’s handsomely crafted character study boasting an Oscar worthy performance from the unrecognisable star.

Gary Oldman as Winston Churchill surrounded by parliamentary colleagues in Darkest Hour. Photo: Universal Pictures/Focus FeaturesGary Oldman as Winston Churchill surrounded by parliamentary colleagues in Darkest Hour. Photo: Universal Pictures/Focus Features

The Darkest Hour (PG)

****

Darkest Hour covers the first three weeks of Churchill’s time as prime minister: from taking over after Neville Chamberlain was forced to resign, against the wishes of most of his own party, up to the Dunkirk evacuation.

Being a film about Churchill, it is appropriate that it steps on a few toes, namely that of last year’s Churchill, with Brian Cox in the title role, and Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk. It also takes director Wright back to his finest five minutes, the Dunkirk tracking shot in Atonement.

Gary Oldman as Winston Churchill in Darkest Hour. Photo: Universal Pictures/Focus FeaturesGary Oldman as Winston Churchill in Darkest Hour. Photo: Universal Pictures/Focus Features

Though Churchill was set at the end of wartime, in the days around the D-Day landing, the two films are very similar: they cover a narrow period when he was weak, they’re mostly people sat in rooms talking and the relationship with his secretary and wife Winnie (in this film Lily James and Kristin Scott Thomas) is key.

This feels somehow grander and more cinematic. It may still be a fundamentally a chamber piece but Wright is able to sweep events along and has a few CGI aerial shots that give it some scale and perspective to all the jaw jaw.

It’s also more straightforward and celebratory than the previous film. The Brian Cox Churchill was presented as a failing power, a hindrance; here he is the clear hero, the moral force, slightly flawed.

The film opens on May 9 1940 during a particularly boisterous exchange in the House of Commons.

Lily James as Elizabeth Layton and Gary Oldman as Winston Churchill in Darkest Hour. Photo: Universal Pictures/Focus FeaturesLily James as Elizabeth Layton and Gary Oldman as Winston Churchill in Darkest Hour. Photo: Universal Pictures/Focus Features

Clement Attlee (David Schofield), leader of the opposition Labour Party, demands Neville Chamberlain (Ronald Pickup) stand down as Prime Minister for “leaving our nation ruinously unprepared to face the present Nazi peril”.

King George V (Ben Mendelsohn) subsequently invites Winston Churchill to form a government at a critical juncture in the fight against Hitler.

How Gary Oldman scored V for Victory over other screen Churchills

Chamberlain and Halifax are presented as cowardly weasels because they want to sue for peace. But their objections are not unreasonable really; the situation was dire, defeat seemed inevitable and some kind of negotiated peace must’ve seemed like the wisest course.

The acting is the thing here. Mendelsohn does a magnificent job of King George, even though he looks more like brother Edward.

Gary Oldman as Winston Churchill in Darkest Hour. Photo: Universal Pictures/Focus FeaturesGary Oldman as Winston Churchill in Darkest Hour. Photo: Universal Pictures/Focus Features

The main question though is how is Oldman’s Churchill? Well, he’s Churchillian, isn’t he? There’s nothing really else to be. Because of all the great speeches, Chuchill is probably running second to Lear as the most desired role for actors who are over 50.

But the role shapes the performer rather than the other way round. Oldman is one of the actors you’d least expect to play Winston but most of the time he is just like him.

You barely notice it’s Gary Oldman. When you do notice Oldman’s face through the prosthetic makeup it’s like a frightened child whose features have been superimposed on a giant baby.

I don’t know if this is his finest hour, but it pretty damn fine and if the Academy, having never nominated him, were to give him one of their meaningless baubles next month it would be one of their better moments.

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