Wednesday, December 13, 2017

"DARKEST HOUR" MAY BE THE FINEST TWO HOURS IN GARY OLDMAN'S ESTEEMED CAREER

Original caricature by Jeff York of Gary Oldman as Winston Churchill in DARKEST HOUR. (copyright 2017)
Heavy makeup, wigs, and fat suits can often obliterate an actor. Getting lost in his latex marred Billy Crystal’s performance in the last hour of MR. SATURDAY NIGHT. Armie Hammer’s face was rendered so immobile, he seemed more like a statue than Clyde Tolson in J. EDGAR. Gary Oldman doesn’t have such problems in DARKEST HOUR. The makeup he wears to play Prime Minister Winston Churchill is quite possibly the best ever done onscreen, but it never vanquishes the veteran actor. Oldman is as present as his latex. Even with the taut, wiry actor buried under such a thorough guise, his talent, verve, and passion are as visible as ever. And such attributes are perfect for the Churchill he plays in this crackling historical thriller.

Many have played Churchill on the big screen and small. Albert Finney, Brendan Gleeson, and John Lithgow all won Emmy’s for playing the part superbly on television. They captured the gravitas, feistiness, and bulldog ways of Churchill, but Oldman does something more. He instills his Churchill with an energy that seems to not only propel every scene he’s in, but it’s almost as if it’s literally thrusting England whole hog into the war. Oldman’s Churchill has a pot belly, sure, but his jut-jawed, forthright vigor is what enters the room first.

This is not a typical war epic, despite the backdrop of WWII. It’s really a chamber piece, a tightly focused character study of the man at the center of the storm at the beginning of England's involvement in the war as they feared an inevitable invasion from Hitler’s army. No matter, this small film is as exciting as most big budgeted thrillers chock full of big action set pieces and stunt-heavy chase scenes. And despite some wonderful aerial shots of bombers over London and the battlefields, as well as some deep-focus city street scenes, most of helmer Joe Wright's directorial accomplishments in DARKEST HOUR exist in his direction of a tony cast arguing with each other in the claustrophobic underground war rooms where Churchill and his cabinet plotted strategy. It’s a perfect way to illustrate the tight spot that both England and the new PM found themselves in, and we in the audience are crammed right in there with them, sweating it out as well.

Yet, even with such cramped quarters, Churchill still manages to be all movement and kinetic energy. He surges from room to room, invigorating each with his righteousness, his bluster, and his piercing, dramatic words. He faces a lot of resistance from his pleas to stay the course and fight the Nazis, and often must shout down the milquetoast blubbering of those arguing to surrender like Viscount Hallifax (Stephen Dillane) and former Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain (Ronald Pickup). One of the film’s best lines has Churchill barking, “Will you stop interrupting me while I’m interrupting you!” at the flummoxed Hallifax and what a joy it is to see Oldman shout these choice words with such relish, they could be spread on a hot dog.

Indeed, Churchill used such weapons in his arsenal to persuade, using strident, stinging words, as well as his wagging finger and jutting, intrusive cigar to intimidate. He employed them all to his advantage, and so does Oldman. Both men knew how to play the drama to the hilt when needed and in many ways the theatricality of the historic figure is right in Oldman's wheelhouse despite having to work with the below-the-line craftsman to help him embody the portly prime minister. 

Churchill, the aging politician, excelled at being both the carrot and the stick, while Oldman, the veteran actor, knows just how to spit out bile and whisper fears. Yet, despite his penchant for overdoing too many villain roles on his resume, his best scenes are actually the ones where Churchill stops talking and listens to the POV of others. Taking sage council from his devoted wife Clementine (Kristen Scott Thomas), listening closely to the earnest stories from his young secretary Elizabeth Layton (Lily James), these are the moments that ingratiate both Churchill and Oldman most strongly to us in the audience.

Wright’s direction, and the script by Anthony McCarten, let Churchill’s movements speak volumes too, sometimes more definitively than his words. It’s a great running gag, or perhaps walking gag is the more proper term, when Churchill is shown constantly charging into room after room like a bull in a china shop. Whether it’s rushing from his office to the war room with his aides struggling to keep up with him, or click-clacking through the lacquered halls of Buckingham Palace to update King George VI (Ben Mendelsohn) on the war’s progress, Churchill is always shown as a man in motion, the one on the move. It’s as if he can’t wait to get into whatever room there is and persuade those sequestered there to join his fight.

Gary Oldman in his incredible Churchill makeup in DARKEST HOUR.
One of the more charming scenes in the film arrives late in the film showing Churchill taking a ride on the Tube to get in touch with the “commoners.” One by one, he polls those in his car about the nation's fight against Germany. He finds that they have the same pluck and dedication to the cause that he has, and it reaffirms his beliefs in never giving up his fight. It may play a bit corny, and is questionable if it happened, but the set piece demonstrates how critical it is for leaders to get out of their own heads, let alone the limited bubble that too often is the domain of the powerful. 

DARKEST HOUR crackles along like a good yarn, dramatizing what it took for Churchill and his cabinet to devise an escape plan for all those stranded soldiers off the beaches of Dunkirk despite incredibles odds against them at every turn. If Christopher Nolan’s summer hit DUNKIRK created nail-biting tension around the basics of the soldiers' physical survival, DARKEST HOUR does similar things around Churchill's political survival. It’s more than a terrifying to realize just how close Churchill and his case for fighting came to being overruled by the pussyfooters around him.             

At times, this contained, character-driven thriller plays like a stage play, albeit one with amazing close-ups. And what a marvel Oldman’s performance is even with the camera inches from his face. Every nuance, every subtle shift in how he conveys Churchill’s mood, from how he holds his mouth to blinks his eyes, it's all there playing spectacularly, even with all that latex on top of his face. Oldman is aided by a sterling supporting cast, one that might figure in the upcoming SAG Awards, but this is clearly the veteran star's film from start to finish. Oldman is 59 now and has been relegated to too many supporting parts in the last decade. He deserves bigger and better, and this is a role as big as his talent.  

It's hard to believe that Oldman, despite being such a respected 'actor’s actor', has only been nominated once for an Academy Award. He did marvelous work as spy George Smiley in the thriller TINKER TAILOR SOLDIER SPY, but he didn't win. Even harder to believe is that his even greater performances from his earlier years, like SID & NANCY (1986) and PRICK UP YOUR EARS (1987), weren't even nominated. And how could Oscar never even look his way for such terrific supporting turns in THE DARK KNIGHT (2008), THE CONTENDER (2000), TRUE ROMANCE (1993), or JFK (1991)? With DARKEST HOUR, Oscar may finally right his wrongs.

Oldman imbues Churchill with all the zeal and strength that made Time magazine name the Brit the Man of the Half Century in 1950. And in delivering so spectacularly in the role, DARKEST HOUR may well turn out to be the actor's finest two hours onscreen in a long and esteemed career.

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