Oscar buzz always moves into full throttle around the fall film festival season, when studios show off their most prestigious wares to critics and industry types, and sometimes people declare the Oscar race over before it’s even begun. That’s dumb (see how The Social Network feels about being heralded the frontrunner early on), but you know what, sometimes a film or performance lands that’s so striking, so bold, that’s hard not to go overboard with the early anointments. That’s certainly the case with Gary Oldman’s performance in Darkest Hour, and having caught the film myself at the Toronto International Film Festival (read my full review here), I can confirm it is indeed the performance to beat at the moment, and the film itself looks poised to make some big waves.
Darkest Hour chronicles Winston Churchill’s early days as Prime Minister, as he juggled the decision that led to the miraculous evacuation at Dunkirk while trying to convince his fellow politicians that standing up to Hitler was the right choice, not signing a peace treaty to prevent the Nazis from destroying them.
Gary Oldman, who for some insane reason only just landed his first Oscar nomination ever for Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, gives one of those “unrecognizable” performances as Churchill, completely disappearing into the character. But what sets this performance apart is that Oldman isn’t simply doing an imitation here (though to be fair he looks, sounds, and walks exactly like Churchill—it’s uncanny), he’s completely absorbing himself into the character, so what you see onscreen isn’t so much an impersonation but a fully realized transformation. Under all that makeup and prosthetics, Oldman does so much with his face and body to really bring the character to life. It’s remarkable, really.
But Darkest Hour isn’t one of these films where you have a great performance in a mediocre movie—thanks to visually stunning direction from Joe Wright and a dialogue-heavy script by Anthony McCarten, Darkest Hour is a terrific piece of filmmaking from top to bottom. It’s a rousing story of leadership that chronicles a crossroads that could have forever changed the course of history. It’s rousing and stirring, and based on audience and critics reactions so far, I definitely don’t think a Best Picture nomination is out of the question.
The biggest hurdle (if it even is one), is if Academy members will be keen on voting for two World War II movies about Dunkirk. Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk captures the events of the evacuation while Darkest Hour is about the politics behind the decision, and while this may seem to cover similar territory, they really are perfect companion pieces. So the question remains: Is there room for both, or just one? If it’s just one, I imagine Dunkirk has the edge—if you’re on that movie’s level, you’re really on it, and I imagine it’ll do well on a preferential ballot. With Darkest Hour, it’s a really good film, but I’m not sure its fans will have as much passion for it as Dunkirk. But hey, it’s entirely possible that there’s room for both in the Best Picture lineup.
Beyond that, if Darkest Hour hits big with voters, nominations for Director, Writer, Production Design, and Cinematography are all possible, and Dario Marianelli’s original score is hands down one of the best of the year—if there’s justice in the film music branch, Marianelli will get a nomination. And while the supporting performances are solid, this is really Oldman’s movie, so supporting nominations for folks like Kristin Scott Thomas and Ben Mendelsohn are a bit more iffy.