by Hope Madden
Back in the day—before the mustachioed Commissioner Gordon or the bewitching Sirius Black—back in the way back of the 80s and 90s, Gary Oldman was known for disappearing into real-life characters. Whether it was his Sid Vicious or Lee Harvey Oswald or Ludwig Van Beethoven, Oldman could cease to be, leaving nothing behind but the most amazing reimagining of true life.
So the fact that he’s magnificent in Darkest Hour should come as no surprise.
Besides his physical transformation, thanks to what may be the single greatest achievement in fat suits in all of moviedom, Oldman convinces by capturing the spirit of Winston Churchill.
In retrospect we know Churchill’s fighting spirit was desperately necessary— his nation was facing unfathomable odds and dealing with an establishment’s inclination toward surrender. But it’s Oldman’s performance that makes us understand why so very few were able to trust not just Churchill’s vision, but Churchill.
With the aid of an excellent turn by Kristin Scott Thomas as Churchill’s wife Clementine, Oldman makes the Prime Minister knowable: driven, insecure, passionate, drunk, uncertain, romantic and somehow lovable. The performance is effortlessly layered and authentic and honestly the best work the veteran actor has done in decades.
Credit a crisp screenplay by Anthony McCarten for providing context by way of illuminating points of view, each one deftly animated by an understated ensemble delivering nuanced performances. Ben Mendelsohn’s King George and Stephen Dillane’s Viscount Halifax, in particular, quietly but assuredly manifest the uneasy but shifting perspective of a nation on the brink of possible annihilation.
Joe Wright’s direction sometimes feels fanciful given the seriousness of the story, but he works mightily with his poetic camera to enliven what could otherwise have been a claustrophobic chamber piece.
Instead, he’s crafted a fine bookend to Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk. Darkest Hour glimpses the backroom politics that led to the ingenious and breathless rescue of England’s armed forces the summer of 1940. It lacks the gut-punch or cinematic mastery of Nolan’s film, but it does boast one hell of a performance.