Darkest Hour casts an unlikely actor as a WWII icon

Yes that’s Gary Oldman as Winston Churchill in Joe Wright’s handy complement to Dunkirk.


Kristin Scott Thomas and Gary Oldman in Darkest Hour


It seems like, by this point, the role of Winston Churchill has become a sort of right of passage for British actors of a certain age and a certain, bear-like demeanour. Churchill has the benefit of being one of the most visually recognizable of all the non-despotic political figures on top of having been in power at a time that was very ripe for narrative retelling – the number of Churchill movies in the last 10 or 15 years is staggering.

One person that was not ever on my list as a potential Churchill was Gary Oldman; though chameleon-like throughout his career (less so now, where he frequently turns up in action-movie junk wearing a pointy li’l goatee), he doesn’t exactly have the physical characteristics of actors like Brian Cox, Albert Finney, Brendan Gleeson or Bob Hoskins.

Casting Oldman in Darkest Hour was a gamble not because of Oldman’s talent but because it requires make-up and prosthetics to do a tremendous amount of the heavy lifting. The line between a lived-in performance that’s simply augmented by the make-up and a shuffling, hambone-heavy SNL audition is pretty thin, especially when you consider that Oldman looks nothing like Churchill. Sure enough, the only thing of Oldman that remains recognizable in Darkest Hour are the eyes. Everything else disappears, for better or worse.

Darkest Hour begins in 1940. As Hitler’s troops close in on Britain, the government is forced to make a decision. When the sitting current prime minister, Neville Chamberlain (Ronald Pickup), steps down, the remaining government needs to act fast. The king (Ben Mendelsohn) settles on Winston Churchill, a career politician who isn’t exactly perceived with unanimity by the Cabinet. Pig-headed and set in his ways, the hard-drinking, cigar-puffing top-hatted sexagenarian isn’t exactly anyone’s idea of a leader, but he proves to be the one Britain needs at wartime. Much of the film is spent as Churchill attempts to negotiate the evacuation of Dunkirk – an operation that has already been covered extensively on the silver screen this year. (Director Joe Wright also tackled it before in Atonement; that film’s now-legendary tracking shot showcases the evacuation.)

Churchill is introduced to his newest assistant, Elizabeth Layton (Lily James), by his wife Clementine (Kristin Scott Thomas) with a warning: he’s irascible, but more importantly, he mumbles. Oldman took that comment and ran with it, imbuing his Churchill with a nearly cartoonish sense of the aristocratic bumble. Forever leaning into his paunch, chomping on oversized cigars and blustering semi-incomprehensibly through a mouth that seemingly never opens quite wide enough, Oldman’s Churchill is all affectation without much in the way of subtlety, relying heavily on the idea of Churchill as this almost larger-than-life abstraction than a living human being. It’s a broad performance, certainly; it’s the kind of thing that would perhaps stick out in a different movie, but Oldman’s Churchill is the Churchill that Darkest Hour needs.

Darkest Hour works a bit like a reverse of Dunkirk – all talk, no action. It contains all of the discussions and debates that drove Dunkirk, but it never leaves London. That’s mostly accidental, of course; the “old-white-guys-sitting-in-dusty-chambers-yelling” movie is a tried-and-true classic British subgenre, but the majority of examples have a tweedy, BBC-esque respectability to them that’s often subverted with humour for mass appeal. (The King’s Speech, a fine if unremarkable movie, is a great example of that.) Darkest Hour has some of that, too. It’s a necessary byproduct of making historical movies for mass appeal rather than basement hobbyists and Civil War reenactor types, but all that comes in the form of Oldman’s performance. As a wartime, old-guys-arguing movie, Darkest Hour is surprisingly straight-forward and dense, guided only by Oldman’s larger-than-life approach to the material.

Of course, director Joe Wright is no stranger to pepping up dusty material; pretty much all of his previous films have been relatively faithful but energetic takes on tweedy classics like Pride & Prejudice and Anna Karenina. (He also made the truly, stupendously terrible Pan, but everyone fucks up once in awhile.) Wright has a certain way of adding energy and electricity without necessarily making the thing into a washed-out music video (with the exception, of course, of the aforementioned turd Pan) and he turns this relatively sedate premise into a dynamic and often rather engaging movie. It has its flaws – one scene where Churchill heads out into the subway to meet his constituents and is subsequently inspired to stand up to Hitler is straight out of a Hallmark Channel original) – but Darkest Hour is fine entertainment. ■

Darkest Hour opens in theatres on Friday, Dec 15. Watch the trailer here: