Darkest Hour Cert: PG 2hrs 5mins
Gary Oldman is one of those actors you could walk past in the street and not recognise – he has a quiet, unshowy ordinariness that not only allows him to disappear into the parts he plays but also does a very good job of deflecting public attention.
As a result, if I try to conjure an image of what the off-duty Oldman looks like, I struggle.
But I do know that he looks absolutely nothing like Winston Churchill. And yet, for all bar the opening ten minutes of Darkest Hour, the Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy and Harry Potter star gives such a convincing turn as Britain’s wartime hero that he’s already scooped the Golden Globe for Best Actor in a Drama and a Bafta nomination, and must stand a decent chance of repeating that success come Oscar time.
Gary Oldman gives such a convincing turn as Winston Churchill in Darkest Hour (above) that he’s already scooped a Golden Globe and a Bafta nomination and looks set for Oscar glory
Yes, it’s a triumph for Kazuhiro Tsuji, the Japanese genius who made the prosthetics that turn the slender, thin-faced Oldman into the portly, round-cheeked Churchill – and, indeed, for the make-up skills of David Malinowksi and Lucy Sibbick, who started work at 3am each day to begin the three-and- a-half-hour transformation.
But it’s a career-defining triumph for Oldman, who doesn’t have the eyes for the part or quite the expected voice – it’s those two things that trip you up for the first ten minutes – and yet he brings such an energy, intensity and, eventually, ferocity to the role that well before the end you’ve forgotten that any other actors have ever played the part.
Putting it succinctly, Oldman gives a performance rather than an impersonation and Darkest Hour is all the better for it.
The film has other good things going for it too including first class direction and an exquisitely judged performance from Kristin Scott Thomas as Clementine Churchill (above with Oldman)
Mind you, it has other good things going for it, too – a taut, intelligent and cleverly structured screenplay by Anthony McCarten, who brought us The Theory Of Everything, top-drawer direction from Joe Wright, whose 2007 wartime drama, Atonement, comes repeatedly to mind, and a scene-stealing but exquisitely judged supporting performance from Kristin Scott Thomas as Clementine Churchill.
It begins in May 1940 as the so-called ‘phoney war’ comes to an abrupt end with Germany’s invasion of France and the Low Countries.
With an ailing and politically weakened Neville Chamberlain under relentless attack in the House of Commons, a new prime minister is urgently needed, and there is only one man who can bring all the feuding political parties together.
But is the 65-year-old, hard-drinking, cigar-chomping Churchill – variously dismissed as either an ‘actor in love with the sound of his own voice’ or a ‘drunkard’ by opponents – up to the job?
It begins in May 1940 with Churchill’s appointment as PM but he finds himself undermined by Chamberlain and Lord Halifax (played quite brilliantly by Stephen Dillane, above)
And with the prospect of real war, can even he resist the siren call of appeasement? Might jaw-jaw – beginning peace negotiations with Hitler – be better than war-war? This is the film that gives us a Churchill who genuinely isn’t sure.
Last year, in the not terribly successful film Churchill, which dealt with the run-up to D-Day, Brian Cox brought us a Winnie haunted by the mistakes of his past (the disastrous invasion of Gallipoli in 1915 that cost the lives of more than 50,000 Allied servicemen), exhausted by four years of war and outmanoeuvred and generally bullied by an unholy alliance of Dwight Eisenhower and General Montgomery.
This time around – with events taking place four years earlier, of course – Churchill’s frailties are centre stage again but far more convincingly so.
To some extent, Darkest Hour is a near-perfect companion piece to Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk (above, Lily James as Churchill’s secretary Elizabeth Layton)
He’s undermined by Chamberlain and Lord Halifax (played quite brilliantly by Stephen Dillane), struggles to strike up a rapport with the King and is haunted not just by Gallipoli (the prospect of losing virtually the entire British Army at Dunkirk is almost too much to bear) but by his own doubts as to the best way forward.
If he has a plan at all it’s ‘to keep buggering on, not bugger it up’.
To some extent, Darkest Hour is a near-perfect companion piece to Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk. If you watched that aghast by both the apparent lack of a plan and the fact that nobody seemed to know what was going on, Wright’s film explains why.
They were too busy arguing in the Cabinet War Rooms: there was no plan. Until the moment Churchill stiffened the sinew and finally got a grip.
If you watched that aghast by both the apparent lack of a plan and the fact that nobody seemed to know what was going on, Wright’s film explains why
There’s no doubt that Wright employs light, shade and cinematography to full dramatic effect, coming close to overdoing it at times.
But his only real false step comes in a scene where the great man, who we have learnt by now has never been on a bus, suddenly descends to the London Underground to canvas opinion from the great British public.
What? Cor blimey – it feels like a scene that’s been inserted especially for gullible Americans.
But it didn’t spoil my enjoyment of what eventually becomes a viscerally powerful film, or of Oldman’s at times electrifying performance.
This might just be his finest hour.
Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri (15)
Now here’s a funny thing… or possibly not. Let me try to explain.
The Golden Globes, which were handed out last weekend, are the only major awards to make a distinction between drama and ‘musical or comedy’, and Martin McDonagh’s new film, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, duly walked away with four of the coveted awards, including Best Motion Picture. All in the drama category.
Which is consistent but odd, for at the screening I attended people were laughing from beginning to end, albeit in a slightly uncomfortable way.
For my money it’s a comedy, but of the blacker-than-black variety, which is exactly what you expect from writer-director McDonagh, who has already brought us the wickedly funny In Bruges, about two hitmen languishing in Belgium after killing an innocent bystander, and the astonishing play The Lieutenant Of Inishmore, a blood-soaked tale of mad Irish terrorists that I’m ashamed to say made me laugh until I cried.
Three Billboards isn’t that funny, but it is clearly intended to make us laugh, as the award-winning but definitely larger-than-life performances from the likes of Frances McDormand and Sam Rockwell make clear.
The reason why it might be punching above its weight at the moment is the emotive subject matter.
At a time when Hollywood couldn’t be more sensitive about the sexual abuse meted out by powerful men, this is a film about the very worst sexual violence against women, with McDormand playing a grieving and furiously angry mother still mourning her pretty daughter, who was raped and murdered by an unknown attacker.
When the local police seem incapable of tracking down her daughter’s killer, Mildred (McDormand) rents three derelict advertising hoardings on the edge of her home town and covers them in posters taunting the police – and specifically Chief Willoughby (Woody Harrelson) – for their failure.
‘Still no arrests?’ asks one of the billboards. I thought this was when people would stop laughing but it wasn’t. After a suitable pause, it soon returned.
McDormand, who won the Golden Globe for Best Actress and must be favourite again at the Oscars, is excellent in a strong role perfect for these difficult times – the belligerent and boiler-suited Mildred, the very antithesis of Hollywood glamour, is definitely not a woman to take any nonsense from any man.
Rockwell, who won Best Supporting Actor for his performance as a dim cop on a short and normally racist fuse, is funny but couldn’t be accused of underplaying, while the somewhat overlooked Harrelson, as the police chief who unexpectedly turns out to be hiding not just a conscience but a tragic secret too, is quietly excellent. The dénouement of his particular storyline is too dark even for me.
McDonagh’s film is extremely well executed but it’s also long, tangled and any higher purpose is difficult to discern. Sometimes, however, just saying the right things at the right time is enough.