An engaging portrait of a leader

Cinema still from the movie Darkest Hour starring Gary Oldman.
Cinema still from the movie Darkest Hour starring Gary Oldman. PHOTO: UIP



126 minutes/Opens today/4 stars

The story: This portrait of British wartime prime minister Winston Churchill (Gary Oldman) covers the weeks between his rise to power and his famed "we shall fight on the beaches" speech in Parliament. As France falls to the Germans, a faction within the British government wants a peace treaty with Hitler, seeking to unseat the hawkish Churchill.

As sometimes happens in popular culture, a nostalgic nation becomes fixated on one period in its history. Victorian England has had its day in films and television, as has The Great War with its schoolboys swopping caps and cricket bats for helmets and rifles.

These days, the mood seems to be about Britain standing alone, with just the Channel protecting it from an existential danger lurking on the continent.

In a short span of time, there has been the Netflix royalty drama The Crown, Christopher Nolan's military re-enactment Dunkirk (2017) and the lesser-known biopic of the prime minister, Churchill (2017) with Brian Cox in the lead role.

Now comes this movie.

Gary Oldman's portrayal of Churchill deserves the acclaim it has received from critics, as well as the notice of judges at the Golden Globes and the Screen Actors Guild Awards. Both have nominated him for the Best Actor prize.

Oldman, unlike John Lithgow in The Crown or Brian Cox, is the physical opposite of the real wartime leader, who was as round and wide as Oldman is lean and narrow. Aided by the astonishingly supple facial prosthetics of the Oscar-nominated make-up artist Kazuhiro Tsuji, Oldman plays both the public and private Churchill with convincing ease.

The oratorical prowess is there, as well as the V-for-victory fingers and the brisk walk. But there is also Churchill naked in the bath, swilling brandy by the bucket, roaring at his terrified staff.

The dramatic build-up to the "we shall fight on the beaches" speech is finely constructed and Oldman's delivery of those words, time-worn as they are, raises the hairs and stirs the blood.

Director Joe Wright knows period drama, but in this and others he has helmed, such as Atonement (2007) and Anna Karenina (2012), his particular brilliance lies in turning inner thought into action cinema.

When it works, it works very well indeed. Wright shoots the prime minister in the act of speech-writing the same way Lee Ang might stage a wuxia battle. Wright's restless camera tracks Churchill's immortal words as they fly from his mind before landing on the pages of typist Miss Layton (Lily James). This is mental activity framed as martial arts.

Churchill's constant motion is a good fit for Wright's storytelling style, one that never tells when it can show. But it is a habit that can be taken to ludicrous extremes. There is a scene showing Churchill mingling with passengers in a London Underground carriage, gauging their support for war. It is a hackneyed, slow-clap man-of-the-people moment that mars this otherwise engaging portrait of a beloved national leader.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on January 04, 2018, with the headline 'An engaging portrait of a leader'. Print Edition | Subscribe