Issue:  Vol. 48 / No. 11 / 15 March 2018

Winston Churchill's missing bits


Gary Oldman is Winston Churchill in director Joe Wright's "Darkest Hour." Photo: Focus Features
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Joe Orton was a gay English playwright whose final play, "What the Butler Saw" (1967), featured "the missing parts of Winston Churchill" as a running gag. Was an irreverent Orton tearing down a tattered old British lion, or elevating him to the status of supreme phallus? Gary Oldman played Orton in Stephen Frears' "Prick Up Your Ears" (1987), a stunning film, especially considering it's a biopic. Tasked, 30 years on, with inhabiting the pelt of the old lion himself, Oldman has put on pounds of prosthetics to fill out his lean cheeks and neckline. Make-up does not a performance make, as is proved by "Darkest Hour," opening Friday in the Bay Area.

Joe Wright, who directed, is a bit Wagnerian, a carver-out of high-fallutin' gesamtkunstwerks, or entire enchiladas, that rework canonic narratives by abstracting them from their original historical and traditional aesthetic contexts. He likes to film in a vacuum. "Darkest Hour" shows the change of British prime minister from appeaser Neville Chamberlain to anti-Nazi Churchill. Pushpins clutter a map of France in a bunkery war room, and Dunkirk is evoked through CGI. Standing in for conflict, Chamberlain and his chum Lord Halifax, pitiful pansy peaceniks, limply spar with bulldog Winston, who seems oddly cold-blooded.

Oldman as an actor is a bit cold-blooded, but what is wrong with his face? In certain shots, he looks like an escapee from Madame Tussaud's Waxworks. The silhouette is uncanny, but when he moves his head he turns into Humpty Dumpty. Immobile faux flesh is a terrible burden for an actor onscreen for 125 minutes, his eyes peeking out through a turgid mask of plastic. Other famous Winston impersonators have trusted to their own bones and sinews, even hollow-cheeked Richard Burton, whose deep drinker's voice was ideal. Oldman tries to force his natural tenor downscale, but his Tallulah Bankhead slur erupts in cockney vowels.

Wright dumbs down the intellect and integrity of the pigheaded Churchill, whose taste for verbal tussles matched his lust for physical combat. A brilliant but eccentric leader haunted by the 1915 Gallipoli bloodbath, he alone in May 1940 can rally his threatened island kingdom to war with "that man." A charismatic speaker, he gives a series of blood-kindling speeches pledging Britain will fight with every shred of its being to victory "at any cost." Even today, his words retain incantatory magic; to read them aloud is to feel the sheer courage of promised sacrifice. Don't expect, however, to be moved by their passionate, principled persuasion, because you won't hear it.

Wright muffles Churchill's ringing oratory in Parliament, shooting from a great distance and maddeningly underscoring them with a raging string section sawing up and down scales with wild redundancy. The term "underscoring" is an understatement: the entire movie, except for one brief scene, is blitzed by Dario Marianelli's intrusive score. When Winston addresses the airwaves, lest we listen, Wright frantically cuts to various people in various rooms listening to various radios: with each new amplifier the sound of the voice alters. Pat the sound engineer on the back for meticulous mixing, but mourn the baffling of sacred British texts.

Anthony McCarten's script is threadbare, perhaps to allow time for people to speak slowly in a solemn atmosphere of portentous pauses, either because they have speech impediments like George VI and Halifax, or because everyone's in a bad mood. As Mrs. Churchill, Kristin Scott Thomas seems not to have got the memo, offering a welcome incursion of stiff-upper-lip briskness in too few snippets. The main thrust, with Hitler as whipping boy, is war fever. The jingoistic belligerence of the crowd in a hokey London Underground scene makes me wonder why, except to fetch Oldman a trophy, this disgruntled slice of propaganda was ever made.


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