Darkest Hour; 125 min; Rated PG-13
Gary Oldman is an essentially unrecognized treasure who represents perfection in his craft, a craft that requires the capacity to inhabit completely another persona. It is truly a remarkable ability. Of course, those who love movies know that there are actors (some very successful) who alone possess the “it factor,” a magnetism, a charisma that allows them to play themselves, and what a self it is, regardless of the role. They are not required to be someone they’re not — they simply need the lines, the costume, the context and themselves to be a movie star. That’s always been the case regarding “star power.” They are simply wonderful to look at, listen to, absorb as they follow the script. And if it’s a great script, they soar.
But there are, in constrast, the actors who have mastered the art of inhabiting a character distinct from themselves, absent all exterior vanity. They are able/willing to abandon their ego and inhabit that singular person who is prepared to ride the continuum of inherently good or malevolently evil with relish and conviction. And that gift reflects a certain genius. It often requires a disguise, studied mannerisms, facial tics as well as an intimate understanding of who/what one is portraying. It is an art form, a craft, that the audience has the opportunity to observe, to marvel at, while fully suspending its disbelief.
And it is that moment when watching Oldman as Winston Churchill in "Darkest Hour" that we realize that we are watching an actor in a role unlike no other. Perhaps one he has waited for years to be offered.
We also quickly come to understand that it is at this moment in the history of England, at the outset of World War II, which is unlike no other. England had sent the very core of its fighting force (some 300,000) men to France to aid in its defense. The German juggernaut has swept across Europe, invading country after country, each falling, one after the other, like so many dominoes.
This gesture of assistance to the French resulted in England’s army being pushed by the Nazis and their phalanx of panzers to Dunkirk, the English Channel acting as a barrier, trapping the soldiers while the German Wehrmacht drew ever closer and its air force strafed the beaches. England was confronted with losing its entire army, leaving the island essentially defenseless to what most assumed would be an imminent invasion.
Churchill, newly named prime minister, was under immense pressure from members of his own party and his war cabinet that argued strenuously that England should use Italy and Mussolini to sue for peace and hope that Hitler’s terms would leave them a shred of independence.
Churchill deeply disagreed with this position and instinctively wanted to take what he knew would be a high-risk/ high-gain stand of resistance while knowing that the odds were against England.
Oldman conveys beautifully and completely a man who while he wavers also struggles with his own powerful inclination to never yield. That nexus of will, that steely determination and uncertainty, offered simultaneously, is conveyed by a profound talent. He must convince the audience that he is deeply conflicted while consumed by certainty.
Oldman’s portrayal is a stunning display of consummate acting. It is also likely that this role will earn him an Oscar nomination (he's already won the Golden Globe for Best Actor). Regardless of the outcome of the award, hopefully the mention of “Darkest Hour” will focus enough attention on this film that when it’s reduced to its essence is a deep character study of one man facing a moment that will impact not just him but all of history.
“Darkest Hour” may be judged by some as “slow.” For others, it may seem at times a bit tedious (even the lighting of the film is dark to obscure, conveying a certain ominousness). But it is a film that’s about a harrowing crossroads. Dunkirk as a symbol has always said eloquently, tangibly, that England would resist fascism. And Churchill knew that to negotiate with Hitler would signal the end of the island’s autonomy. What he could not foresee was that his nation and eventually its allies would struggle beyond comprehension, at great cost in lives and effort, to arrive at an end that would be judged, at its conclusion, to have been heroic.