Gary Oldman emerges as a major contender in this year’s Best Actor race with his visceral portrayal of Winston Churchill in director Joe Wright’s Darkest Hour, which played Sunday night at the Prytania Theatre as part of the 2017 New Orleans Film Festival.
The film’s story is familiar to those with even a passing knowledge of WWII history. In 1940, the Nazi armies are rampaging across Europe and one country after another is falling. Only Great Britain is holding out, but the prospects look very bleak. Defeat seems likely and some in the government want to negotiate a surrender. If Churchill, the newly appointed prime minister, is unwilling to do so, then he might be pushed out of his job shortly after starting.
It would be easy for the movie to feel like a solemn dirge, but Wright keeps things lively and cinematic. He has always been a strong visual director, most memorably with his depiction of the Dunkirk evacuation in Atonement. Darkest Hour, if handled badly, could have felt like a TV movie, but it’s a film that should be seen on the big screen, even though there aren’t any action scenes.
But Darkest Hour depends the most on Oldman. It’s a big, showy performance, but it has to be. For the film to work, you have to feel Churchill’s words in your gut in the final act. Oldman has to connect with the audience on an emotional level, and he does. But aside from nailing the climactic speeches, he also brings Churchill’s sense of humor, his insecurity, and his sometimes insufferable crabbiness to life in the smaller scenes as well. It’s a performance and a film worth seeing (it is scheduled to open in New Orleans on Dec. 21).