Darkest Hour: All Hail Gary Oldman

Darkest Hour Plot Summary:

In 1940, Germany is on the brink of conquering Western Europe.  With Chamberlain (Ronald Pickup) unfit to rule during wartime, Winston Churchill (Gary Oldman) is made British Prime Minister and urges Great Britain to fight in lieu of entering peace negotiations.

It seemed inevitable that Darkest Hour would be one of those okay movies that’s solely anchored by one Oscar worthy performance.  That’s pretty much what you get.  While slightly better than Spielberg’s Lincoln, and a lot better than the unmitigated disaster that was J. Edgar (shudder), the sum of these parts still don’t equal the transformative performance that is Gary Oldman.  I wouldn’t say this is LeBron James on the Sacramento Kings, but maybe more like LeBron on the Portland Trailblazers?  I don’t know.  Let’s just cut to the chase – go see this movie because of Gary Oldman.  The end.

I know it’s cliché to say “He was so good, I forgot it was him,” but in all honestly, I forgot I was watching Gary Oldman at times.  Not that I’ve ever met Winston Churchill, but Oldman completely immersed himself into this role with flawless execution.  I could throw out all the adjectives you want like “incredible” and “extraordinary,” but let’s just get to the specifics.

The whole crux of the movie is whether or not Churchill will enter peace negotiations with Hitler and Mussolini. We’ll get to whether or not that works as a plot later on. As it relates to Oldman’s performance though, it’s a golden opportunity for him to explore Churchill in all sorts of different emotional states.  

The first is defiance. Churchill’s cabinet wants him to enter peace talks, as all seems lost when Great Britain’s forces are trapped on Dunkirk. Churchill wants to fight back and rescue them. There’s one sequence in particular where he screams at his entire cabinet.  Oldman is spine-tingling.  He has one line of dialogue about what it means to capitulate to a mad man like Hitler that stops the whole movie. As you watch this scene, you can already picture the Oscar clip.

We also see pain and frustration. As the Dunkirk situation gets worse, Churchill is essentially forced to consider peace talks. He goes to his room to contemplate, with only his secretary (Lily James) there to type out the letter. As he’s giving his dictation, Churchill looks at a newspaper clipping with Hitler on it. Oldman stares at the lunatic he’s forced to negotiate with. It disgusts him. The frustration on Oldman’s face as he mumbles the words to his typist is something you can’t teach. Oldman is spectacular.

Most impressive is when we see Churchill at his most vulnerable. Most of the movie he’s portrayed as the tough guy, giving ferocious speeches about victory. As we see the weight of the world, quite literally, on this guy’s shoulders, looking as haggard and unsure as ever, is where Oldman goes to that next level of acting. While the movie does a great job of showing us Churchill’s idiosyncrasies, this is where he’s most human.

The entire movie being based around one decision is a good premise. While it was riveting to watch Churchill weigh his options with everybody, including his cabinet, wife, the King and even ordinary citizens, it couldn’t sustain a two-hour movie.  Even with all those defiant speeches, it got painfully repetitive. The problem is you know how it ends, so let’s just get there. Even by the time Churchill makes his last great speech to Parliament, you are already checked out.

The other problem is none of the other actors come close to matching Oldman’s performance. The scenes with his wife, played by Kristin Scott Thomas, are fine, but nothing special. His main opposition, Viscount Halifax, played by Stephen Dillane, offers very little.  There’s a couple good moments with his secretary (James) who Churchill uses as a sounding board, but that relationship felt too cutesy, TV movie-esque.

The one actor who seemed to be on par with Oldman was Ben Mendelsohn, who plays King George VI.  Mendelsohn might be one of the most underrated actors in all of Hollywood.  He speaks with Churchill at his lowest moment.  Mendelsohn is a big reason why Oldman is so good in that scene.  Much like Churchill, you feel the weight on the King’s shoulders as well.  They may be at odds most of the film, but they want the same thing.

Joe Wright is a hit or miss director, and that’s on full display here.  So much of this movie is going through the motions, but there are moments when Wright puts his stamp on it.  The build up to when you first see Churchill is great.  There’s already a mystique about him.  There’s also some nice camera work as you watch this great profile shot of Churchill delivering his first big speech.  Moments before Churchill is supposed to deliver a radio address, he’s scribbling notes to the final seconds before the red light goes on.  That was exceptionally well executed.

One scene I strongly disliked, but I’m sure many reviewers are praising, is when Churchill gets on the underground train and speaks with everyday citizens.  On paper, this could be endearing, but it completely takes you out of the movie.  Why?  The acting is bad.  Everyone looks at him with mouths wide open, but it comes off as way too comical.  It almost felt like a Stan Lee Marvel cameo.  While only one scene, it’s a crucial part of the movie.  They could have benefited from bigger name actors here.  

One other misstep is the score.  Dario Marianelli won an Oscar for Atonement, but he certainly wasn’t Oscar level here.  It felt like a recycled score from a hundred other movies.

Wright offers some nifty tricks, and at times the script hits on fantastic dialogue, but this will be remembered for Gary Oldman, and that’s it.  His performance alone makes this a good movie.  You can lock him up now for a nomination.

Rating: 7 out of 10 (Good)

Darkest Hour is in select cities currently, but opens nationwide on December 22.

Daniel Cohen is the hard-boiled Film Editor for the Pop Break. Besides reviews, Daniel writes box office predictions, Gotham reviews and Oscar coverage. He can also be found on the Breakcast. If Daniel was sprayed by Scarecrow’s fear toxin, it would be watching Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen on a non-stop loop.