Mention Churchill to movie execs, and they respond like his namesake nodding dog: “Oh, yes.”
As the debate over national identity rages on, it is perhaps inevitable that we should rally round the totemic Briton, and see what wisdom he might still impart to us. Last summer’s Churchill adopted a detailed biographical line; now there’s Darkest Hour (★★, PG, 126 mins), an altogether more bombastic recital of our Winston’s first month in office.
In the lead role, instead of some age-appropriate, looks-appropriate actor who burrows inwards towards some core Churchillian truth, we have, rather, Gary Oldman, trapped beneath several pounds of latex: the first fatal error of a film forever straining for a weight and gravity beyond its reach. The script, by The Theory of Everything’s Anthony McCarten, arrives larded with contemporary parallels. Darkest Hour opens on a sepulchral Commons amid a leadership crisis. To replace feeble Neville Chamberlain as PM, Churchill must win over dissenting MPs from both sides of the aisle, all the while in frantic negotiation with those on the front lines.
Director Joe Wright resorts to setting Oldman down in shadowy corners, from where he puffs plumes of cigar smoke up towards vast pools of light. The approach owes less to AJP Taylor than Bonnie Tyler: it’s history redrawn in broad pop-promo strokes. In Darkest Hour, he rolls out countless aerial perspectives of battlefields in a bid to open up what’s essentially a series of Cabinet meetings, but so much of this movement seems reductive: the PM meeting a winsome refugee’s gaze while flying into France, or jovially discussing policy decisions during a deeply condescending, biographically dubious Tube commute. Increasingly, Darkest Hour plays like a vision of Britain for a Britain that needs its politics simplified into caricature, a vulgarisation that extends to the conception of Churchill himself.
One-sided awards buzz suggests that this is the Oldman show, and it’s certainly striking watching a once-unmatchable performer fighting a losing battle with a fat suit. Whatever the technical challenges, the results are a slap in the face to those older actors who might not have needed the phoney bulk. To these eyes, at least, it’s an extension of Oldman’s recent descent into scenery-chewing.
Wibbling about boiled eggs, bellowing about everything else (“Tell the Lord Privy Seal I am sealed in the privy!”), this windbag Winston most often resembles one of Matt Lucas’s creations from a show that provides Darkest Hour with both an alternative title and, presumably, its target demographic: Little Britain.