Biopics – and especially those depicting notable historical figures – seem to always be a safe bet for Award Season. Some people love it, other hate it, but every so many years a movie catches the attention of critics and voters alike and becomes a potential contender – i.e, The King’s Speech, among others. This year, Darkest Hour portrays the first days of Winston Churchill as Prime Minister, at a time when the United Kingdom was losing the war to Nazi Germany and Europe seemed to be doomed. I am going to be honest, the race for Best Actor is over: The Oscar goes to Gary Oldman.
Whenever an actor wins an Oscar for portraying a well-known political or real-life figure, it is not unusual to see people downplaying the actor’s performance and assuming that the Oscar simply went to the best impersonator. After all, other performers who play fictional characters have to create their roles from scratch and make them believable. And yet, Gary Oldman is able to completely disappear behind his character and deliver a tour-de-force performance that transforms the somehow “history book” version of Churchill into a real, believable person, and he does so by becoming a totally different person. There is more to this character than make up and voice, as Oldman is able to capture the complexity, eccentricity, strength, anger, fear and doubt of a man we have all heard about and yet we have not known. Many mediocre performers can play historical figures – even Lindsay Lohan – but few are able to give the audience goose bumps by transforming those word into pure fire and fury.
Before watching the movie, I had the preconceived notion that Darkest Hour would be for Gary Oldman what The Iron Lady was for Meryl Streep: a great character performance in a somehow average movie – even I can admit that. And yet, Darkest Hour achieves something The Iron Lady never did: it keeps the audience at the edge of their seats and it doesn’t need to create an imaginary present in order to build an Oscar-worthy character. I have to admit, I found the movie erratic at times, with a combination of thrilling and emotional scenes, with somehow calmer conversations which were nonetheless necessary to understand the complicated figure of Winston Churchill, magnified and yet humanized by Joe Wright. These moments of let down, captured with elaborate and mannieristic lighting, could perfectly be due to the striking opening scene – massive title credits included – which fascinates the audiences and sets a mood of claustrophobia, chaos and fear, even before we get to meet the main character. It could have been impossible to keep up with that mood, as a movie made entirely of Winston Churchill speeches could have in fact ruined the feature. In the end, even though much of the movie is people talking in small dark rooms, the movie is more than just that and it is able to catch the audience’s attention and never let it go.
I am usually pretty critical of World War II movies as I believe they depict a romanticized story in which the UK (or France) become the saviors of the Western World (which by all means is false). Joe Wright doesn’t shy away from the chaos – both political and human – of one of the lowest times in the history of the UK. Yes, the ending downplays the role of the countries that really did defeat the Nazis, but throughout the entire movie Churchill is questioned, pushed aside and seen as a mad man whose luck may have influenced his success. In this sense, Darkest Hour is the perfect companion for Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk, arguably one of the greatest World War II movies ever made.
What is clear is that Darkest Hour doesn’t need to show us Winston Churchill’s entire political career to make the audience understand the complexity of his character, and by focusing on a precise moment in history, what could have been just another boring biopic becomes a fascinating period piece about the struggles behind great leadership and sacrifice.