Adapted from the Twitter feed and mined from the notebooks. Posted Thursday morning, February 15, 2018.
Alone in a crowd: Gary Oldman as Winston Churchill in “Darkest Hour.”
Gary Oldman came to fame playing Sid Vicious, bassist for the ur-punk band the Sex Pistols, suspected of murdering his girlfriend, dead of an overdose of heroin when he was twenty-two. He followed that up with “Prick Up Your Ears”, starring as the gleefully subversive British playwright Joe Orton whose dark comedies were considered scandalous and whose death was a scandal and a horror, murdered as he was by his lover who took a hammer to his head and then killed himself with an overdose of pentobarbital . “Sid & Nancy” and “Prick Up Your Ears” are not uplifting movies. Neither Vicious nor Orton were exactly heroic figures. And here he is, hopefully not even close to the end of his career, but a long way from where he started, nominated for an Academy Award for Best Actor for his portrayal of Winston Churchill in “Darkest Hour”.
That’s some career arc!
I liked “Darkest Hour”, was wowed by Oldman, but, for obvious reasons, I've been thinking about it in comparison to Spielberg's “Lincoln” and and it's not holding up. It's main comparative weakness is in the secondary characters. It's not just that “Darkest Hour” has no equivalent to Tommy Lee Jones' Thaddeus Stevens. There are no equivalents to Adam Driver's nameless army officer in the war room or David Oyelowo's cavalryman who recites the Gettysburg Address to Lincoln as a rebuke. And there's nobody even close to James Spader's corrupt but good natured political operative.
I won't even get started on David Stathairn's William Seward. Seward was actually my favorite character in “Lincoln”---after Lincoln, of course.
I’ll get to Sally Field in a minute.
All the secondary characters in “Lincoln” are sharply drawn, both in the acting and in the writing. Result is Lincoln himself doesn't get all the good lines or even all the best lines.
In “Darkest Hour”, Churchill doesn't just get all the best lines and all the good lines, he gets practically all the lines. Basically the rest of the cast's dialog consists of feeding Oldman straight lines.
But then “Lincoln” was written by Tony Kushner.
Davis X. Machina was one step ahead of me. As I was working out thoughts for this post on Twtter, Davis tweeted this pointing out it wasn't all in the writing. There's one character in “Lincoln” who insists upon his presence before he even says a word.
Someone on line said that when Grant came up the wharf from the River Queen that there was a shout in the audience "Holy shit, that's *him*!"
As I replied, that might have been me. "Holy shit, that's him!" was my reaction when Jared Harris makes his entrance stepping off that steamboat. That’s still my reaction whenever I see that moment replayed. I’ve rewatched the trailer on YouTube any number of times just to have that reaction again.
Oliver Mannion made the same point as Davis at almost the same instant Davis tweeted it when he saw what I was tweeting. He also thinks “Lincoln” was the better movie but he attributes some of the difference between Joe Wright still being relatively early in his career and Spielberg at the top of his game.
What I’m writing---what I was tweeting---is more personal reaction than artistic judgment. What Spielberg and Kushner and their company of actors wrought comported with what I already knew and thought about the history and the historical characters. I felt I knew them going in---Stevens, Seward, Edwin Stanton, Mary Lincoln, Lincoln himself particularly---and at a basic level seeing them on screen was to my imagination seeing them on screen. It was like a reunion of old friends. I have no such familiarity with the events and characters depicted in “Darkest Hour”, Churchill himself included. I “knew” him best, but I knew him as a figure from history, which is to say at a distance and figuratively always accompanied by an index and footnotes, excerpts from his famous speeches, and images from the Blitz and Dunkirk and often in the company of Franklin Roosevelt, who naturally overshadowed him in my imagination.
I’m talking about the old Churchill, the cigar chomping bulldog Oldman plays in “Darkest Hour”. The young, dashing, swashbuckling, romantic Churchill, the young hero who could have stepped out of a story by Kipling and who by being so insistently himself and having lived out and amazingly and improbably survived a real life boy’s own adventure causes Candice Millard’s thrilling account of his daring exploits in the Boer War as a journalist-soldier, “Hero of the Empire”, to read like a novel Kipling might have written. But then Churchill consciously modeled himself on characters from the adventure novels and romanticized histories he read as a boy. At any rate, young Winston I’ve always felt I knew. I’ve never been able to reconcile in my head that Churchill with his older, more famous and iconic self, although reading Jon Meacham’s dual portrait biography of Roosevelt and Churchill---“Franklin and Winston”---has been helping me with that. Even so, it’s still hard for me to see the Churchill of Millard’s book and the Churchill in Meacham’s as the same person.
But I’m at much more of a loss when it comes to assessing the important secondary characters in “Darkest Hour”. George VI I think of as having been at his best probably something like Colin Firth plays him in “The King’s Speech”. But before that movie I didn’t think of him much, except in comparison to his feckless, irresponsible, and Nazi-sympathizing brother or as a figure whose presence I took for granted but didn’t pay close attention to in biographies of other people. Churchill’s, for instance. Ben Mendelsohn is excellent in the part in “Darkest Hour”---and if Tommy Lee Jones’ Thaddeus Stevens has a counterpart in “Darkest Hour”, it’s Mendelsohn’s King George, although the comparison is definitely a study in contrasts. But the main effect of Mendelsohn’s performance on me has been to drive home the obvious: Colin Firth may have given us the last word on Fitzwilliam Darcy, but, brilliant as he is in the part, not on George VI.
Nope. Haven’t seen a single episode of “The Crown”, even though Tom Watson has insisted that as a fan of Jared Harris I’m almost obligated to watch.
As for Neville Chamberlain, Lord Halifax, Anthony Eden, and Clementine Churchill, about the only other characters in “Darkest Hour” who are given distinct personalities: Of course I know who Chamberlain was. I just don’t really know what he was like. The same goes for Eden and Mrs Churchill. (By the way, Meacham’s “Franklin and Winston” is also helping me see Clementine Churchill as a person in her own right and not just as Oh yeah, there was a Mrs Churchill, wasn’t there?) It’s unfair---wrong. Sexist even---to see Kristen Scott Thomas’s Clementine as the counterpart to Sally Field’s Mary Lincoln just because she is the wife of the main character. But as it happens that’s how Clementine is presented in “Darkest Hour”, as the wife of the main character, there in a supporting role historically and dramatically.
Field’s Mary Lincoln is the female lead in “Lincoln” just as the real Mary Lincoln was the female lead in both her husband’s story and her own. She---the historic Mrs Lincoln---was a dramatic and self-dramatizing personality with serious problems of her own that made her a pathetic, tragic, and, in her way, heroic figure. First time I saw “Lincoln”, it was a while into it before I stopped seeing Sally Field playing Mary Lincoln as Sally Field playing Mary Todd but when I did I saw Mary Lincoln. She just happened to look like Sally Field. It’s that way for me now when I look back on it. Clementine Churchill was a complex and interesting person but in the movie as in real life she saw her role in public and private life as being Mrs Churchill. Her job, as he resigned herself, mainly cheerfully, to it, was to temper his moods, smooth his ruffled feathers, check his ego, and clear space around him so he could go about the business of being Winston Churchill in all his glory. And that’s pretty much all she does in “Darkest Hour”.
Eden I remember, as opposed to having known of, and I remember him as a dominant figure in the news for dying. To me, he’s his own obituary.
Halifax I barely knew existed.
Cinematic trivia: Eden is played by Samuel West as a pleasant, self-effacing but staunchly supportive, reassuring friend and surrogate son to Churchill. Wood was in “Hyde Park on Hudson” playing...George VI.
Chamberlain, played by Ronald Pickup, and Halifax, played by Stephen Dillane, are and were Churchill’s chief political antagonists, and as such they share more screen time with Oldman than Lee Pace and Peter McRobbie as Thaddeus Stevens’ chief political adversaries, Copperhead Congressmen Fernando Wood and George Pendleton, respectively, share with Tommy Lee Jones, but Wood and Pendleton come across as much more vivid personalities. They’re practically cartoons, actually. But that’s historically true, not necessarily of the two real men, but of 19th Century American politicians. Their histrionic style of politicking required them to present themselves as larger than life and resulted in their often caricaturing themselves, sometimes deliberately and for the fun of it. We see Stevens himself doing it in the movie. Lincoln, more subtly and slyly doing it too. Chamberlain and Halifax were products of their time and place, too, and as a result were much more restrained and less demonstrative in public, and we only see them in “Darkest Hour” in their public roles. But Joe Wright and his director of photography Bruno Delbonnel make them shadowy figures by literally consigning them to the shadows. This is Wright’s tricky way of isolating Churchill throughout the movie even when he is surrounded by a crowd: ambient light always seems to find Oldman while leaving the other actors in relative darkness. This would be heavy-handed if it had been done with a heavy hand. It’s not but the point is made. In England’s darkest hour, Churchill provided light.
And, as Village Voice film critic Bilge Ebiri, joining the thread on Twitter, pointed out that, this is the theme and he made the case that the alone-ness of Oldman’s Churchill is thematic. Churchill was practically on his own in his first weeks as prime minister. Many of his fellow conservatives were, like Halifax, defeatists, and the liberals of the Labour Party who allied with the non-defeatist conservatives to make Churchill P.M. didn’t trust him. He had a record of being politically unreliable, practically and philosophically. In those early days, he must have often felt like a party of one.
LINCOLN [Ebiri tweeted] is all about how much he needed those people around him, whereas much of DARKEST HOUR is about Churchill having to go against what others in power advised him to do.
Finally, it’s as unfair of me to compare Daniel Day Lewis’ Lincoln to Oldman’s Churchill as it would be for me to compare the real Lincoln to the real Churchill. Churchill can never be to me the hero that Lincoln is. I went into “Lincoln” already loving the man as I imagined I knew him, and I came out loving him more. I went into “Darkest Hour” admiring Churchill but feeling distant from him, and I came out admiring him more and feeling a little closer to him, but not a great deal closer. And while that may be the basis of a legitimate critical judgment of the performances or the movies, it feels too much like a personal feeling for me to insist upon it.
If Oldman wins the Oscar, I’ll cheer, but I won’t know if he deserved it more than the other nominees because I haven’t seen any of their movies and, except for one, “Get Out”, I’m not likely to. “Call Me By Your Name”, “Phantom Thread”, and “Roman J. Israel, Esq.” don’t look like my cups of tea. Maybe---maybe---I’ll watch “Roman J. Israel” when it comes out on DVD, but I don’t expect to be wowed to the degree Oldman wowed me. As big a fan of Denzel as I am, it’s beginning to seem that he’s becoming the male Meryl Streep---he gets an automatic Oscar nomination every year he appears in a movie, it’s just a question of which movie if he’s been in more than one that year. For the record, I think Denzel’s best performance of the last 10 years was in “The Magnificent Seven”, so you can’t go by me.
I won't mind at all if “Darkest Hour” wins Best Picture. Or “Dunkirk”. Or “Lady Bird”. But my rooting interest is in “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri”. I haven't seen the other three, although I’m hoping to get to “The Shape of Water.” “The Post” and “Get Out” are going to have to wait for the DVDs.
Except for “Three Billboards”, none of my favorite movies from last year were nominated---“Thor: Ragnarock,” “Wind River,” “Wonder Woman”, “Battle of the Sexes”, and “Logan”.
I'll say again, though: it still steams me Patty Jenkins wasn’t nominated for Best Director.
Your turn: What are your Oscar thoughts?
You might also enjoy Bilge Ebiri’s Village Voice interview with “Darkest Hour’s” director Joe Wright, ‘Style Is a Difficult Word for Me’: Joe Wright on His Winston Churchill Drama “Darkest Hour”.
Tangentially related Mannion re-run: My review of “Hyde Park on Hudson”, Bill Murray’s Broad Shoulders.
“Hero of the Empire: The Boer War, An Epic Escape, and the Making of Winston Churchill” by Candice Millard and “Franklin and Winston: An Intimate Portrait of an Epic Friendship” by Jon Meacham are available in paperback and for kindle at Amazon and as audiobooks from Audible.