A Prosthetic World Savior: "Darkest Hour"
The first time we see Gary Oldman as Winston Churchill in Joe Wright’s Darkest Hour, a tightly wound drama about the newly christened Prime Minister’s struggle with his cabinet as war with Nazi Germany comes to a detrimental head, it feels like another superfluous misstep in a long-line of hagiographic Great Man costume dramas, in this case a medium-sized actor engulfed by a prosthetic apparatus in tandem with studied affectations geared towards, may we be cynics, a long-overdue Academy Award. Wright and his writer, Anthony McCarten (who wrote a recent entry into this genre, the dreadful Stephen Hawking biopic The Theory of Everything), give initial agency to Churchill’s callow new secretary, Elizabeth Layton (Lily James), who’s hastily given the commandments in dealing with the severely temperamental historical fellow who waits shrouded in the dark off-stage and upstairs. Churchill is Oldman’s “hoo-hah” moment, James like clueless and meek Chris O’Donnell being groomed for a vulgar and alcoholic blind man in Scent of a Woman, which set the long-delayed Dorothy Chandler Pavilion march for Al Pacino in 1993.
But as the perspective shifts from Layton to Churchill and the film puts on its Churchill masque, what Oldman and Wright are doing complements the fuller picture of Darkest Hour, being the story of a rare man who has the distinction of having actually saved the world, in large part, so the film asserts, because of how he's playing an assigned role that demands the ostentation of Richard III. Perhaps Darkest Hour is grooming the condescension of many critics, being the more palatable and linear cousin to Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk. There’s grand speechifying, of course, mawkishness, the customary tremors within the hero's domestic space with too-patient wife Clementine (Kristin Scott Thomas), and the insertions of Churchill’s biography into passing dialogue being gratingly transparent. But after Oldman’s predictably explosive introduction to Layton and the audience, it’s clear the cosmetic performance, itself a nod to Oldman’s chameleon repute which has absorbed several other iconic faces of Great Britain (punk rocker Sid Vicious, playwright Joe Orton, and fictions such as John le Carre’s George Smiley and Bram Stoker’s infesting vampire from the East, Dracula), is about an actor’s tightrope walk between private and public spheres.
In Dunkirk, Great Men and Great Ideas (and conversely Horrible Men and Horrible Ideas) are cloaked in the urgency of war’s cloud of anonymity, expressive dialogue muffled in exasperating noise (one of the film’s alleged flaws in fact being a deliberate formal choice in step with Christopher Nolan's career-long deliberation of communication and semiotics) as faces, even as they blend into each just as the face of an individual (Cillian Murphy in this case) may clash with itself within concurrent time lines, are read with brutal clarity. Nolan’s film begins with leaflets falling from the sky on British soldiers written by their German adversaries, reminding them that they’re surrounded: the literature, blunt in its message with propagandistic illustration, indicates imprisonment and the limits of communication; but at the film’s conclusion, after the nation has come together with Operation Dynamo (where hundreds of civilian boats crossed the English Channel to rescue thousands of soldiers), Churchill’s words of hope are read on a newspaper by the “anonymous” soldier, the crisp turning of the page being the film’s final sound. The Word is redeemed as it overleaps the page’s stark ink-and-paper limitations and thrives as communicable Symbol.
Churchill’s rhetoric, like that of any leader during wartime, could be similarly described as propaganda, though in Darkest Hour, as Churchill mumbles through a speech’s composition, the expression of an ideology becomes paramount, setting the stakes of rhetoric in civilization. Churchill’s war cabinet wants to engage in peace talks with Hitler and Mussolini, but as the Prime Minister tries to define with whom they are negotiating, he works through apt descriptions of his rival: tyrant, butcher, monster, savage. His drunken vituperation is warranted, as indeed he’s the only person who’s been right about Hitler for the last ten years. And Hitler, arguably, hangs over Darkest Hour more than Churchill does. Wright’s opening images are of the Fuhrer's authorial power, displaying the perfect diagonal lines of storm troopers, molded collective shapes and forms through which leaders and nations express their wills. Churchill restlessly paces through his cavernous central command and Hitler’s voice and image seem to taunt him. These men are similarly both actors in love with the sound of their own voices (such as a colleague derisively describes Churchill).
The breakthrough of Churchill, however hushed and abhorrent, is an acknowledgement of kinship with the monster and shadow self, and so when his speech is finally unveiled, instead of "with this butcher/tyrant/monster etc" he says “with this man." This is the crucial difference between the Europe the Man of Letters strives to preserve and the barbarism espoused by his Teutonic adversary. Oldman’s Churchill, roused from bed and shuffling through in his disconcertingly Uncanny Valley countenance, asks Clementine, “Which self should I be today?” He quotes Macbeth to an assistant before going to work, the bad-luck “Scottish Play” which is the bane of actors. Clementine knows her husband’s “priority would be public life,” she being wife to a political performer who is introduced by her to their children as “Prime Minister,” as if he was alienated from any biological paternity. His life is dominated by writing speeches, the film's soundtrack acutely discerning the scratching of pencils and pens with their red marks and revisions, and then the rhythm of keyboards setting it down to copy. He writes on the toilet and in the tub (“coming out in a state of nature,” as it were, not as man but as someone composing his scripted performative bust), calling on Cicero’s rhetoric for inspiration and dwarfed in his study by immense bookcases. The hammy Richard Crookback nature of Churchill “performing” Churchill, diegetic in the text or for Gary Oldman in a Joe Wright film, jolts through the Prime Minister as his car passes children wearing cartoonish Hitler masks by the London Underground entrance. Ruffled by the specters of political personae, the actor crosses the liminal line and takes the train to Westminster with the groundlings.
Churchill meets the passengers, including a mother with babe in arms, the scene playfully making mention of Churchill’s physiognomical similarity to infants. In the context of Darkest Hour’s performative themes, bound closely to Oldman’s reputation as a merry-go-round of endlessly moldable personae, the Great Man or World Savior is then one as one born-again in his rubbery mask (in contrast to the hollow eyes of the Hitler masks), and the initial sense of egregiousness regarding Oldman’s makeup relaxes in favor of a resonance that goes deeper than congratulatory movie awards. The “performing monkeys” are spotted throughout Westminster, finally decorating Churchill’s fire mantle as he receives the confidence of King George IV (Ben Mendelsohn), himself introduced to Churchill by Clementine as someone, who if not the King, is doing a “marvelous impersonation.” Outside the text, Churchill’s flubbed “V for Victory” photographed as a vulgar sign couldn't help but make me recall Oldman’s breakthrough as punk rocker Sid Vicious giving the same gesture on a stage while performing “My Way” in Alex Cox’s Sid and Nancy, the “Pretty Vacant” anarchist descendants of Churchill’s times who espoused “no future” in response to the wankery of conservative politics now reconciled to the past by virtue of the very same actorly vehicle (this intertextualism would be scoffed at by Oldman's early directors like Cox and Mike Leigh, and perhaps may be more properly construed from the perspective of the actor, who’s own political conservatism is well known, and, so runs my prediction, may cost him that Oscar anyway). The anonymous patsy of JFK’s Lee Harvey Oswald and Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy’s masterful lump-of-espionage-putty George Smiley are both answered with an emboldened affirmation of the performer imbuing his text with life as he fastens his mask and its idiosyncratic features, mobilizing the language before sending it into battle.
A topical post-script: concurrent with Darkest Hour’s release is the most flagrantly cosmetic of world leaders, whose own rhetoric is as vapid as Churchill’s was rich. And in entertainment and politics, consonant with a Reality TV president (whose significance necessarily infects criticism, so my apologies), the curtain between Private and Public has fallen to an extent that a Panopticon, making obedient performers of everyone, encapsulates everything, past and present. In recent weeks another performer who’s become a politician, Al Franken, resigned from his senate post because of missteps in his interactions with women. None of these troubling incidents, to my knowledge, were private, or behind closed doors; he was a buffoon unwise to his boundaries (or maybe, like fellow USO performer Robin Williams, too comfortable in his jester costume, at least as someone who would subsequently run for office). A debate among the Left pertains as to whether Franken should have surrendered or, like the dangerously emboldened Right behind Trump and Senate candidate Roy Moore, stood his ground. I can’t say as to whether or not Franken did the right thing, but after watching Darkest Hour, I couldn’t help but feel similarities between the milquetoast cabinet of Neville Chamberlain and the Democratic Party, ceding ground to vicious tigers much too quickly, arming themselves in a political war with butter knives as their rivals have semiautomatic weapons. As the Left gets embroiled in the same infighting Monty Python parodied with the People's Front of Judea in Life of Brian, maybe this ostensibly conservative film, about realizing just what the hell we're dealing with, is for them.