The true measure of a masterly performance is in its proclivity to hide the craft that goes behind the process of creating a character. In playing the blustering, bullying, opinionated, pigheaded, unorthodox, raunchy but finally effective British Prime Minister Winston Churchill, who took on the might of Hitler, Oldman pulls out all the stops. He isn`t afraid to let his impressive skills shine through the astonishing prosthetics. It is a performance designed to win awards.
And therein lies the main problem with this not-unimpressive biopic.
Oldman`s portrayal of the blustering old man is spot-on, but designed to win the Oscar. The rest of the components in this Joe Wright directed film pale into insignificance. The film wears a strangely glum and dingy look, as though the parliament sessions and the Prime Minister`s home at the time of Hitler`s invasion were infected by a deep melancholy and a dismaying absence of sunshine. The last time I saw a film looking so glum was in Shekhar Kapur`s "Elizabeth".
"The Darkest Hour" revels in shadowy whispers and silhouetted innuendos. The parliamentary sessions shown in the film never rise above the level of staged drama and the famous Churchill speeches delivered through swigs of the trademark cigar, do not transcend the mood of doctored dogma. Interestingly, cinematographer Bruno Delbonnel had earlier collaborated with director Tim Burton on "Dark Shadows".
Nonetheless, the lengthy film has passages of excellence popping up like a clown at a very dull birthday party. One noteworthy portion of the film has Churchill jumping out of his car at a traffic signal and taking a ride on the subway train with British working class passengers.
"What`s the matter? You`ve never seen a Prime Minister ride the subway before?" he asks the open-mouthed commuters cheekily.
As played by Oldman, Churchill is a bit of a defiant brat. His limited understanding of British politics is perpetually overridden by his determination to do what is right for the country.
While the sequences where he brokers peacetime preconditions with his cabinet members are done with a self-important clumsiness, Churchill`s personal relationships with the King (Ben Mendelsohn), with his wife (Kristin Scott Thomas) and especially with his personal secretary (Lily James) come across with rigorous sinewiness.
In a moment of unguarded emotional honesty, the secretary tells Churchill that the war has taken away her brother. When she catches the Prime Minister staring at her, he tells her with disarming disingenuousness, "I just want to look at you."
Wish we could feel the same wave of empathy for the narrative which runs the gamut of manufactured emotions from political rhetoric to wartime sarcasm.
"The Darkest Hour" never quite expels the feeling of being a vehicle for Oldman`s virtuosity. Yes, he was born to play Churchill. But was Churchill born so that an actor as skilled as Oldman could one day play him?
(Ratings: 2.5 Stars)