TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. Film critic Justin Chang has a review of "Darkest Hour," starring Gary Oldman as Winston Churchill. The film is set during the early days of World War II. Hitler's forces are rampaging across Western Europe when Churchill is appointed prime minister of England in 1940.
JUSTIN CHANG, BYLINE: Winston Churchill is having something of a renaissance moment in popular entertainment. In the recent film "Churchill," Brian Cox played the prime minister as he confronted the looming specter of D-Day. John Lithgow won an Emmy for his turn as an aging postwar Churchill in the hit Netflix series "The Crown." Now comes "Darkest Hour," a ham-fisted prestige entertainment but a grand showpiece for Gary Oldman, who gives us perhaps the biggest, brashest and certainly most prosthetic-heavy screen version of Churchill yet.
Directed by Joe Wright from a hypereloquent script by Anthony McCarten, "Darkest Hour" unfolds over several tense weeks in May 1940. Western Europe is crumbling under Hitler's onslaught. Neville Chamberlain, having gotten nowhere with his disastrous appeasement policy, has resigned as prime minister, leaving Churchill the unlikely beneficiary. Although widely distrusted by the political establishment for his irascible, unpredictable streak, Churchill is rightly seen as the only one strong enough to unite all parties and lead Britain to victory.
Even with the apocalypse looming, there's a bit of official pomp and tradition to get through. Churchill has a private audience with King George VI, who, as played by a terrifically restrained Ben Mendelsohn, is very good at hiding his reservations about the appointment. Kristin Scott Thomas puts a commanding spin on Winston's faithful, fiercely intelligent wife Clementine, who turns up every so often to remind him why he's the right man for the job. He'd better be anyway, with Britain's armed forces about to be wiped out by the Germans on the northern coast of France.
If you've seen Christopher Nolan's harrowing epic "Dunkirk," which focused on the logistics of that famous evacuation, "Darkest Hour" provides an undeniably fascinating look behind the scenes. Much of the movie takes place not at 10 Downing Street but in the cabinet war rooms, an underground bunker where Churchill pours over military maps, spars with his cabinet and consults his young typist Elizabeth, an audience stand-in nicely played by Lily James. Among Churchill's rivals turned advisers is Viscount Halifax, a Chamberlain ally played by Stephen Dillane who's bent on negotiating a peaceful surrender with Germany. But the prime minister, determined to seek victory at all costs, isn't having any of it.
(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "DARKEST HOUR")
STEPHEN DILLANE: (As Viscount Halifax) There's nothing heroic in going down fighting if it can be avoided. Nothing even remotely patriotic in death or glory, if the odds are firmly on the former. Nothing inglorious in trying to shorten a war that we are clearly losing.
GARY OLDMAN: (As Winston Churchill) Losing. Europe is still...
DILLANE: (As Viscount Halifax) Europe has lost. And before our forces are wiped out completely, now is the time to negotiate in order to obtain the best conditions possible. Hitler will not insist on outrageous terms. He will know his own weaknesses. He will be reasoned with.
OLDMAN: (As Winston Churchill) When will the lesson be learned? When will the lesson be learned? How many more dictators must be wooed, appeased - good God, given immense privileges - before we learn? You cannot reason with a tiger when your head is in its mouth.
CHANG: As he demonstrated in films like "Pride And Prejudice," "Atonement" and "Anna Karenina," director Joe Wright likes to infuse toney literary material with a daring element of the theatrical. In "Darkest Hour," that sense of showmanship plays out a visually arresting but sometimes garishly over-the-top effect. The cinematographer, Bruno Delbonnel, emphasizes the doomsday mood by giving nearly every actor a ghostly pallor.
Wright sends the camera soaring around and around the crowded House of Commons, cranking up the spectacle a hundred fold. When Churchill rides a lift down into the bunker, the film boxes him in on all sides by impenetrable walls of blackness, literalizing the title and making clear, as if we needed reminding, just how isolated this man is. But if Churchill is an island, he is also a rousing populist hero, as demonstrated by an entirely fabricated sequence that gives the movie its schmaltziest moments.
The prime minister, on his way to deliver a speech before Parliament, ends up riding the underground and listening to what his people have to say. Presumably, this scene, with its cute child reaction shots and impromptu poetry recitations, is meant to bring a tear to your eye. But mine were too busy rolling to get that far. Oldman can be an actor of enormous subtlety, a quality that he has decidedly not brought to bear on his work here. This is a fist-pounding, jowl-twitching tour de force of acting.
If Oldman's skinny frame seems an odd one on which to hang Churchill's larger-than-life proportions, spiritually, his performance is of a piece with his madly energetic, live-wire turns in movies like "Sid And Nancy" and "True Romance." And why not? When you're staring down history's greatest monster, and an Oscar hangs in the balance, it's no time to play it safe.
GROSS: Justin Chang is a film critic for the Los Angeles Times. If you'd like to catch up on FRESH AIR interviews you missed, like our interview with journalist Luke Harding, author of the new book "Collusion," about the connections between Russia and Donald Trump and his campaign, or our interview with Nashville singer-songwriter Margo Price, who played some of her songs, check out our podcast. You'll find lots of interviews to choose from. FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Sam Briger, Lauren Krenzel, Heidi Saman, Therese Madden, Mooj Zadie, Thea Chaloner and Seth Kelley. I'm Terry Gross.
(SOUNDBITE OF MARIA SCHNEIDER'S "WALKING BY FLASHLIGHT") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.