Telluride: Gary Oldman Guns for His Oscar as Winston Churchill in 'Darkest Hour'

Joe Wright's latest period drama offers the Oscar-less veteran actor the sort of showy part to which the Academy often responds — but the film's overall chances aren't helped by comparisons to 'The Crown' and 'Dunkirk.'
Courtesy of Focus Features
Gary Oldman in 'Darkest Hour'

Darkest Hour, Joe Wright's latest British period piece drama produced by Working Title and distributed by Focus Features (which will release it Nov. 22), had its world premiere at the Telluride Film Festival on Friday night, screening roughly simultaneously at two venues, including the Galaxy Theatre, where I saw it with a mostly full house.

Will the film — which chronicles Winston Churchill's dramatic first weeks as prime minister, culminating with the Battle of Dunkirk — be an Oscar contender like so many Great Man portraits before it? In its favor, Gary Oldman, playing Churchill (and virtually unrecognizable beneath makeup and prosthetics), gives the sort of showy performance to which Academy members often respond. The 59-year-old veteran chews scenery like he's starving, and particularly wows in a train scene that may be apocryphal, but is the film's best. To the surprise of many, Oldman still is Oscar-less — he's been nominated just once, for 2011's Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy — but he could finally take home a statuette this season; for now, he's the man to beat in the best actor race.

On the downside, the film can feel a bit too didactic and, more problematically, comes hot on the heels of both Netflix's epic Emmy-nominated series The Crown, in which John Lithgow gives the performance of his lifetime as an aging Churchill, and Christopher Nolan's epic Oscar-bound film Dunkirk, which depicts the Battle of Dunkirk in awe-inspiring fashion. Darkest Hour does not benefit from comparisons to either of these other 2017 productions. (Ironically, the most striking cinematic portrait of the Battle of Dunkirk prior to Dunkirk came in a five-minute tracking shot in — wait for it — Joe Wright's 2007 best picture Oscar-nominated Atonement.)

It's amazing that it has taken until now for someone to attempt a major Churchill-centric film — or at least one on the big screen, since 2002's The Gathering Storm, in which Albert Finney played Churchill, won great acclaim on television — as few characters as colorful or complicated have ever come along. Wright's film, which was scripted by The Theory of Everything's Oscar-nominated screenwriter Anthony McCarten, captures that he was both a public orator and a private vulgarian of the first order; one of the few Brits who anticipated the aggressive intentions of Adolf Hitler, and one of the last to consider the possibility that Britain might actually fall to Hitler; and the sort of person who was honorable enough to assemble a team of rivals as his War Cabinet, but who also lied repeatedly to his own people.

There are plenty of positive and negative lessons from Churchill's life that present-day politicians on this side of the Atlantic would be wise to learn from — but, at a time when politics and war are the backdrop to our everyday lives, the biggest question mark for Darkest Hour may be: Does anyone actually want to devote their leisure time to seeing this sort of a film? The film's Oscar fate may rest on the answer to that question.

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