* * * 1/2
Watching Gary Oldman as Winston Churchill in Joe Wright’s Darkest Hour is not a revelation, but a reminder – that Oldman is one of the greatest screen actors ever, and stands alongside Daniel Day-Lewis and Meryl Streep as one of the great technical chameleons. His Churchill, like Day-Lewis’ Lincoln and Streep’s Thatcher, may be cloaked in make-up, a voice, physical padding and a wig, but has total integrity of heart and soul.
As with watching Day-Lewis and Streep in Lincoln and The Iron Lady, you’ll probably spend the first scene with Oldman / Churchill marvelling at the make-up and being aware of it (indeed, I’ve no doubt the first scene for each of their characters, in each of their films, is designed to let you take this moment). Then, you simply forget about it – not just the make-up, but the actor within. As far as I was concerned, for the rest of Darkest Hour, I was watching Winston Churchill, and boy, was he fabulous.
The film itself is a little ponderous. Working uncannily well as a complementary narrative (or an unofficial prequel) to 2017’s Dunkirk, Wright’s parliamentary procedural shows none of that film’s verve and flair. It’s an older style of filmmaking, made for an older style of audience. If you’re a Churchill or World War Two buff, you’ll probably find some of the dialogue painfully expository, but enjoy seeing terrific actors playing some of your favourite mid-20th Century British politicians; if you don’t know much about Churchill’s wartime Prime Ministership, you’ll get a hearty lesson, because Wright and screenwriter Anthony McCarten have opted to give you a lot of detail.
But you come, and you stay, for Oldman. If you’re a performance buff, you can’t afford to miss this. It’s uncanny, it’s technically virtuosic, it’s mesmerising, it’s brilliant. Oldman gets the humour, the doubt, the drunkenness, the moods, the intelligence, the heart and soul of the man. It’s great screen acting at the very, very highest level, and must be seen to be believed, and admired.