Oldman's finest hour

FILM REVIEW: An extraordinary performance as Churchill in Darkest Hour

Darkest Hour

Darkest Hour (PG)
Running time 2 hr 5mins
Rating: ***

JUST as Daniel Day Lewis’ unforgettable portrait of Abraham Lincoln evoked the towering glory of Washington DC’s marble memorial, Gary Oldman’s turn as Winston Churchill recalls a rather more modest statue, one that faces Big Ben from the corner of Parliament Square.

It depicts the British statesman as we all know him, the grey, trenchcoated elder with the unassuming smile and the awkward posture, immortalised in bronze as in countless photographs.

It’s a familiar image, yet Oldman’s out to prove that, yes, there IS such a thing as skinning a dead cat in new, startling ways.

With the aid of a very, very talented make-up department, of course.

As a matter of fact, Darkest Hour is banking on the familiar – eschewing Churchill’s early, obscure years as a swashbuckling journalist and black-sheep backbencher, it treads lightly, spinning a yarn of Second World War-era hijinks, familiar to everybody who’s endured a primary school history lesson.

This was a story last told but seven months ago, in the doomed Brian Cox-starring biopic bearing the late, great Prime Minister’s namesake; in fact, Darkest Hour centres itself upon the events surrounding the Dunkirk landings, an unspeakably risky wager in the wake of Christopher Nolan’s Oscar-bait extravaganza.

Hell, even its showy, Can’t-Believe-It’s-Not-2018 aesthetic has more than a whiff of Their Finest about it.

So, yeah, there’s little new on offer – and that’s basically the film’s problem. This story’s been done a million times over, and director Joe Wright approaches it in the most tired ‘by-numbers’ way you possibly can, as an ‘inspirational’ three-act period drama (think The King’s Speech et al).

Yes, there’s a scene where Churchill’s cabinet beg him to give up the dream; Churchill shouts defiantly back at them. He gets knocked down, but he gets up again…

But there IS redemption, and it comes caked in a few thousand-quid’s worth of prosthetics.

Like the samey war hero, the screenplay’s trying to sell us for the umpteenth time, Oldman swoops in at every opportune moment to remind us that all is not lost.

All the screen Churchills that came before this one were, I can retroactively say, merely making time for Oldman – his is a truly historic contribution, a masterclass in blink-and-you-could-be-watching-colourised-war-footage cinema.

A half-century having elapsed since Winnie’s death, there was much room for artistic licence here – the Léon star could’ve played Churchill as an insufferable curmudgeon, or as a tyrant, or as the savagely charismatic stalwart of folk memory.

More intriguingly, he could’ve realised him as a proto-Boris Johnson, an essentially unremarkable toff prone to blunder his way into high places. Somehow, he carves a tantalising compromise out of all of these (and from a decidedly clumpy script, to boot), and runs with it.

Coming up in second place: Lily James as the Prime Minister’s embattled secretary (because, I suppose, we already got The Hitler Secretary Movie with 2004’s Der Untergang…). Shame, then, that the both of them have been drawn into a project so run-of-the-mill.

I don’t want the War Churchill. I want the quipster-misogynist, the High Tory, the disgraced Butcher of Gallipoli. Something new, something edgy – there’s a fantastic Netflix mini-series waiting to be made of the man’s strange, controversial life.

Oldman’s effort is something just short of extraordinary, but he takes centre-stage in a movie that’s, to be blunt, very, painfully, resoundingly ordinary.

One can’t help but feel that Wright’s cheated him of the performance of a lifetime. Best not dwell on it.