Hamilton Herald Masthead Hamilton Herald


Front Page - Friday, December 29, 2017

‘Darkest Hour’ brightens holiday movie offerings

Gary Oldman becomes British Prime Minister Winston Churchill in “Darkest Hour.” The story focuses on the newly appointed prime minister during Germany’s march through Europe and before its invasion of England. - Photograph courtesy of Focus Films

Gary Oldman holds absolute sway over every moment he’s on the screen in “Darkest Hour,” which is nearly all of them.

His performance as Winston Churchill is a towering achievement, one that will be remembered in the way one remembers Robert De Niro in “Raging Bull,” Marlon Brando in “The Godfather” and Jack Nicholson in “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest,” which is to say it is one of the greatest film performances by an actor in motion picture history.

There are moments when Churchill unleashes hell’s fury on his opponents in the war cabinet, and I could almost feel the fire in his heart reaching across time to touch me in the theater.

There are times when his tender side comes through with his wife or secretary, and I could understand why those women loved him. And there are scenes when Churchill’s sense of humor breaks through his famously crotchety disposition like rays of sunshine, and I was overtaken by a lingering joy.

But above all, there are the moments when Churchill is carrying the weight of the world on his shoulders, and I wanted to relieve him of the burden because no man or woman should have to shoulder that responsibility. I felt this way because Oldman engaged my emotions in a palpable way. It’s as though the screen, and the years since World War II, disappeared, and I was in a room with Churchill, experiencing his most desperate moments with him.

Oldman does this as he labors under layers of brilliantly applied prosthetics that both transform him into the famous historical figure but also leave him recognizable, like a “Winston Churchill meets Gary Oldman” mash-up.

Beneath the artifice, he uses every faculty at his disposal to bring Churchill to life, including the intensity in his eyes as Churchill addresses Parliament and declares England must not surrender, the frustration in the prime minister’s limbs as he slams a chair down during discussions with his war cabinet, and the rises and capitulations in his speech as he yields to his wife.

Despite the dramatic punch, Oldman delivers in several scenes, my favorite bit is one that takes place in Churchill’s home, when his wife complains that they can’t pay their bills. While watching him win her over with laughter, I couldn’t help but wonder if he shouldn’t have tried the same tactic with his war cabinet.

Surely, it’s easier to reach an accord with politicians and rulers than it is to negotiate peace with one’s spouse.

Like Steven Spielberg’s “Lincoln,” “Darkest Hour” paints a portrait of Churchill by focusing on a specific, brief period in his life: his early days as prime minister, as Hitler is closing in on Britain during World War II. Like an artist that paints a portrait of a subject in an afternoon, director Joe Wright and writer Anthony McCarten chose the perfect moment for showing Churchill at his best and worst, his most powerful and vulnerable, and his most brilliant and stupefying.

It was though they placed Churchill in his parlor, waited until the sun was just right and then placed brush to canvas. The closer you look at the completed portrait, the more details you’ll see – like the way Churchill grunts when he submits to gravity after lowering himself to about a foot from a seat, or his voracious appetite for food, drink and a good cigar. (I couldn’t help but marvel at how he lived to 90.)

I’d be remiss if I didn’t step away from Oldman’s performance to tell you how tremendously entertaining “Darkest Hour” is. While it bears all the hallmarks of a quality British historical drama – sumptuous photography, gorgeous sets, superlative acting, first-rate writing – it’s also frequently funny and often moves along at a brisk, energetic pace.

What’s more, Oldman is surrounded by a superb supporting cast. I love how the film doesn’t just focus on Churhill’s relationship with his nemeses and friends in Parliament, but delves into his relationships with his wife, his secretary and King George IV, all of whom are portrayed by actors who deliver performances that measure up nicely to Oldman’s.

Despite the beefy script, Wright often displays a talent for telling a story with images rather than words. I especially loved the way he captures the British fixation on propriety when he shows Churchill shuffling backwards out of a room after meeting with the king. I guess one does not turn one’s backside to royalty.

Wright does the same thing when he contrasts the weight on the faces of the politicians riding in a car with the relaxed, life is a bowl of cherries outlook of the English citizens outside the vehicle. The divide between those in power and the ones they ruled was cavernous.

Later, when Churchill gets out of his car and rides the underground so he can talk with the common man and woman, we can sense him bridging the gap.

“Darkest Hour” depicts Churchill as a man who struggled to always find the right answers but who held a deep, unwavering love for his country and people. The debate about Churchill’s complex legacy will go on, but there’s no arguing that the film which so vividly, radiantly portrays him is one of the cinema’s brightest hours this year.