‘Darkest Hour’ Film Review: Gary Oldman’s Churchill Carries On But Never Keeps Calm

The chameleonic British actor feasts mightily on Britain’s legendary wartime Prime Minister in Joe Wright’s passably stylish biopic

Darkest Hour Gary Oldman Winston Churchill
"Darkest Hour" / Jack English/Focus Features

The hardest part for any Great Person of History biopic is convincing us the subjects were ever not destined for that achievement, that decision, that feat of heroism. The movies in this category are inherently canvases saved for the larger-than-life, so the inevitable dip that precedes the glory is more like a human comfort than a genuine shock.

It allows us to say, “It almost didn’t happen?” while laying the groundwork for the warm feeling of triumph reinforced. Heroes, they’re just like us!

That said, the case of Winston Churchill in the run-up to World War II is truly a remarkable instance of a controversial, sidelined politician, maligned by his own party, becoming an unlikely national superman. And in chronicling that wobbly 1940 summer when Churchill took his stand against tyranny and prepared England to fight, Joe Wright’s “Darkest Hour” is elegantly commanding enough to be an entertaining reminder of what principled leadership looks like in a time of crisis. Not to mention what carefully chosen, vigorously spoken words designed to rally and inspire sound like when others want to choke out surrender.

If Christopher Nolan’s action-centered “Dunkirk” fed on a soundtrack diet of nervous clock-ticking to tell its dialogue-sparse story of tense waiting, the men-in-rooms companion piece “Darkest Hour” manages to make the recurring sound of typewriter clacking and stentorian oratory into a heartbeat of persuasion and freedom.

As the movie starts, Hitler is gaining ground in Europe, and Britain is in a state of overwhelm: hundreds of thousands of troops are stranded on a strip of French beach with Nazis within salivating reach, and prime minister Neville Chamberlain (Ronald Pickup), his weak placating of Hitler the ultimate unconfirmed friend-request, is losing his grip on the premiership.

Enter Conservative party pariah and hastily announced successor Churchill — in exquisitely jowled Oldman’s channeling a plump, pink, cigar-chomping force of nature — who accepts the begrudging authority of Chamberlain fan King George VI (a nicely understated Ben Mendelsohn) to form a government. But the belligerently pro-war Churchill’s first rousing speech as Prime Minister to a suspicious House of Commons (its cramped, rectangular chamber lit by cinematographer Bruno Delbonnel like a tomb of patriarchal fustiness) isn’t warmly received. As the Tories’ preferred Chamberlain replacement Lord Halifax (Stephen Dillane, looking like a used teabag) barks privately about Churchill, “He’s incapable of even pronouncing the word ‘peace’!”

At home, his dedicated, clear-eyed wife Clementine (Kristin Scott Thomas, charmingly brusque) worries that Winnie won’t get anything done if he isn’t likable, which for her starts with him not making his new secretary Elizabeth (Lily James) cry. Elizabeth toughens up, natch, but he learns to dial it back, too, making her a clerical confidante, even in matters of war strategy.

(She eventually grows comfortable enough to point out to her boss, in an amusing scene, that his attempt at a V-for-victory sign to a newspaper photographer was really the working class’s way of saying “up your bum,” to which he roars with approval.)

His assembled war cabinet, however — pragmatically stocked with friends and foes — proves a tougher nut to crack, with still-hanging-around Chamberlain and Hallifax in the mood to sow discontent by publicly resigning if Churchill doesn’t entertain negotiating with Hitler.

Wright has become a reliably flamboyant adapter of the literary and/or historical, and the determined verve with which he unfurls his symmetrically framed locations, stylish details, and tidy tracking shots is enjoyable if rarely transporting. He’s always looking for the moment that sings, when sometimes what’s called for is observational restraint. When a radio broadcaster’s red light turns on, it bathes the entire room in a blood-soaked hue.

Wright’s biggest special effect is, of course, Oldman, who serves his attentively-basted ham of a portrayal in thick slices that cover all the flavors: cantankerousness, wounded pride, fire, impudence, sensitivity, and patriotic fervor. (Kazuhiro Tsuji’s prosthetics in transforming the actor are world-class.) Coming on the heels of Brian Cox’s wanly supported stab at doddering vulnerability in this year’s earlier wartime snapshot “Churchill,” Oldman’s leonine prowling more readily satisfies as statesman theater, even if there are scenes that too easily tip toward mythic silliness.

The ever-present fantasy of seeing the powerful mix with the plebeian is, for example, stretched to the breaking point in Anthony McCarten’s screenplay when he invents Churchill venturing onto the Tube to take the temperature of workaday Britons (including a black man) about Hitler. Consensus in hand — don’t back down! — he can now give a hoi polloi-fortified what’s what to his feckless, fearful colleagues in government about the Nazi threat.

By that point, the filmmakers just want you stirred enough to fight World War II all over again if you had to. Moviegoers will surely debate whether “Dunkirk” or “Darkest Hour” did a better job at the rousing finale, since both close with Churchill’s “we shall fight” speech to Parliament: in the former, softly read by a surviving soldier as a kind of narrated elegy to an older era’s heroism, and in the latter, shot like urgent cannon fire from the source as a wake-up call.

They’re vastly different movies, of course, but considering the corny, revisionist professionalism on display in “Darkest Hour,” Oldman treats Churchill’s words the way a Broadway virtuoso would: as the showstopper. And who can blame him? It works.