‘Darkest Hour’ is an Impressive Showcase of an Actor’s Craft

But is it anything else?

The title of Joe Wright’s Darkest Hour fills the screen in giant, Mindhunter-style text, accompanied by a blast of music, and the film proceeds with the accordant brash confidence. It’s a snapshot of Winston Churchill’s first month or so as Prime Minister of Great Britain, as the country stands on the precipice of WWII and the British parliament looks to replace Neville Chamberlain. Churchill is absent from those conversations, of course (“Where’s Winston?” “Ensuring his fingerprints are not on the murder weapon”), and he’s the subject of two scenes of conversation, followed by close-ups of the meticulous preparation of his morning essentials, followed by a cigar lighting in his dark bedroom, followed by a dolley in before we finally see the face of the man the movie is about. This is a well-prepared entrance.

The care and precision Wright exhibits there – and that star Gary Oldman, barely recognizable as Churchill, leans into – gives you a good idea of what you’re in for with Darkest Hour, which is a cleanly executed and exuberantly played picture about which, five days hence, I can barely recall more than Oldman’s performance. It is not, by any stretch of the imagination, a bad movie, or even a mediocre one. And yet it’s an impossible film to get all that worked up about, because it seems to exist solely so we can all weightily exhale over how much Gary Oldman has Disappeared Into His Role.

To be fair, Anthony McCarten’s script has a bit more going on than that. At its core, it’s a backstage drama – no sooner has Churchill arrived than enemies are attempting to oust him, a fact he is not only aware of, but verbalizes (“I took great pains to surround myself with old rivals; I may have overdone it”). There’s a fair amount of witty dialogue and amusing true (or true enough) storytelling, and the film pays admirable attention to the hard work of crafting his oratory, intercutting the presentation of his big speeches with the dictating, writing, and rewriting of them (in this way, it is unquestionably a writer’s movie). And Oldman delivers them masterfully, backed by Dario Marianelli’s bravura score, which builds in concert with his performance. His “We shall fight” speech still works, even after hearing and reading it so many times – because it is rousing, and it’s beautifully delivered.

As is his style, for better (usually) and for worse, director Wright is light on his feet; Darkest Hour moves, tearing from one scene to the next, dialogue batted around like so many tennis balls, digging in for a couple of genuinely solid set pieces. (One includes the delicious line, “We’ve lost the prime minister.”) Thanks to the oddities of timing, it’s an accidental companion piece to both Dunkirk and Their Finest, exploring the strategic side of that story with gusto; most notably, McCarten and Wright don’t just present Chamberlain and Hallifax as sniveling appeasers, but as voices of understandable hesitation and fear, doing their best (in their own way) to puzzle out the right move.

And they’ve surrounded him with an enviable supporting cast. Kristen Scott Thomas finds the right note of exasperation as wife Clementine, chastising him when he scares off a new secretary with a pointed “You’ve become rough and sarcastic and overbearing and rude.” But her best moments are her quieter ones, particularly a wonderful little speech in the celebration of his ascension, which begins as a congratulation and becomes a pointed rumination of coming to terms with always being second priority. Lily James finds the right note of high-spirited pluckiness as said secretary; it’s becoming clearer, with each passing picture, that somebody needs to build a screwball comedy around her. And though Ben Mendelsohn’s turn as King George VI is brief, the way he intones “You have my support” is richer than anything in The King’s Speech.

But ultimately, this movie is about the gifts of Gary Oldman, and make no mistake, he is entertaining, theatrical, impressive. It’s also a capital-P Performance, and your response to it will vary based on what kind of actor flips your switches. I, for one, am more moved by a performance like Mendolsohn’s or Thomas’s, one that lets you discover it sitting in the corner, rather than assaulting you at the door with its spot-on mimicry and transformative qualities. But that’s just me. This is certainly the kind of actor Oldman has always been – there’s nothing subtle about his work in True Romance or Leon: The Professional, and indeed, the full-throated theatricality of those turns (“EEEEVVVVERRRRYYYYYOOOOOONNNNEEEEEE!”) is what gives them their considerable voltage.

But those are also supporting roles, and when an actor who’s all about craft is at the center of a film, he may have trouble filling it. And that, ultimately, is where Darkest Hour comes up short; this is a film in service of a performance, rather than the other way around. It’s a slab of delicious frosting that wants you to think it’s a slice of cake.

“Darkest Hour” is out Wednesday in limited release.