Darkest Hour review: Victory signs for Oldman’s Churchill

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Darkest Hour (PG)

Verdict: V is for Very good

Rating:

Gary Oldman already has a Golden Globe to show for his performance as Winston Churchill in Darkest Hour, grappling with Britain’s survival in that tumultuous month of May 1940, when, within days of being installed as Prime Minister, Churchill had to deal with the catastrophe of Dunkirk.

Oldman has duly been installed as favourite to bag an Academy Award, as Best Actor. He’s very good indeed, though I fancy I caught a hint once or twice of some estuary vowels.

I also take the doubtless contentious view that Churchill is not a difficult role for a fine actor — the voice, the mannerisms, the Homburg, the cigar, the famous speeches and quips, the wobbling jowls, and wobbling other bits when he strides around naked dictating telegrams . . . there’s so much familiar baggage to unpack.

And although I’d hate to sound a note of dissent while all the statuettes come pinging in Oldman’s direction, I think the actor who did it best was Albert Finney, 16 years ago in The Gathering Storm.

Gary Oldman already has a Golden Globe to show for his performance as Winston Churchill in Darkest Hour (pictured) 

Gary Oldman already has a Golden Globe to show for his performance as Winston Churchill in Darkest Hour (pictured) 

Gary Oldman already has a Golden Globe to show for his performance as Winston Churchill in Darkest Hour (pictured) 

Moreover, Ronald Pickup, as the resigning PM, Neville Chamberlain, gives a necessarily quieter, but similarly accomplished, performance in a role originally earmarked for the late John Hurt.

Really, what Joe Wright’s film very valuably does, is remind us just how close Britain was in May 1940, even once Churchill had stomped into No. 10, to negotiating a peace treaty with Hitler.

That’s what Chamberlain devoutly wants, along with the appeaser-in-chief, the Foreign Secretary Lord Halifax (Stephen Dillane). Initially, they have the strong support of the King (Ben Mendelsohn), who as Anthony McCarten’s sometimes fanciful script has it, is at first implacably opposed to Churchill taking the reins.

That he, practically alone, had recognised the menace of Hitler counts for little with George VI. ‘Even a stopped clock is right twice a day,’ the King snaps.

Essentially, Darkest Hour is a thriller, skilfully woven out of events to which we all know the ending. It bowls along with terrific energy, and is a much better film than the recent Churchill, which admittedly was set later in the war, but presented the great leader, as played by Brian Cox, as a borderline dementia sufferer, and Miranda Richardson’s Clementine as a scold.

Here, Clemmie is played, with immaculate elegance, by Kristin Scott Thomas (left). If Winston is in thrall to anyone, it’s to her, especially when she admonishes him for bullying his new young secretary, Elizabeth Layton (nicely played by Lily James). He is duly contrite, and starts getting a bit gooey with pretty Miss Layton. There’s a sweet scene between them when she points out that he’s doing his V-for-Victory sign the wrong way round.

Oldman won his first Golden Globe award after he portrayed Sir Winston in the film (pictured on the London Underground) 

Oldman won his first Golden Globe award after he portrayed Sir Winston in the film (pictured on the London Underground) 

Oldman won his first Golden Globe award after he portrayed Sir Winston in the film (pictured on the London Underground) 

I had a slight sense of McCarten (who also wrote The Theory Of Everything) shoehorning in some of the more celebrated Churchill one-liners, such as his cheeky message to the Lord Privy Seal when he was ‘sealed on my privy’.

Nor is he averse to putting actual lines in the mouths of others, such as Edward R. Murrow’s marvellous observation that Churchill ‘mobilised the English language and sent it into battle’. That one is given to Halifax.

The movie’s daftest, most whimsical scene comes when Churchill, on his way to deliver a seismic speech to the House of Commons, is forced by terrible traffic into taking the Underground. Thus, having chatted to the hoi polloi on the Tube, does he emerge empowered by the defiant will of the British people. It’s corny, but it sort of works. Perhaps Theresa May should give it a whirl.

 

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