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Darkest Hour and Churchill: Oldman’s finest show, Cox’s forgotten moment

This year’s Oscar celebrations mark an exciting time for the Brits. Finally, Gary Oldman appears to be on his way to winning a long-overdue best actor award for Darkest Hour. But are we forgetting another great Churchill performance? Film writer Cal Reid weighs up the battle of the Winstons.  

Oldman’s portrayal of Winston Churchill in Darkest Hour is truly a great performance. The renowned British actor is almost unrecognisable with the heavy prosthetics and his drink-slurred speech. However, many are forgetting that in June 2017, another titan of British acting, Brian Cox portrayed the titular Prime Minister in Churchill. Whilst Darkest Hour deals with events more well-known to the world, Churchill shows the famed war leader at a time most people are totally unfamiliar with. In Cox, we are shown a Winston who is haggard by drink, wrought with guilt, and a man totally out of touch with the times. More than that, we are shown a Churchill who has fallen from the stature of a defiant leader, to that of a side-lined figure.

Although we see Winston in a less-than-favourable light at certain moments during Darkest Hour, the film does follow the general image most Britons hold of him; the flawed leader that stood up in the face of overwhelming odds and led Britain out of its bleakest period in history. Churchill shows the days leading up to the Allied armies’ second front on June 6th, 1944. The film gives us a vastly different take on Churchill; a man who was utterly opposed to the idea of D-Day due to his guilt over the disastrous Gallipoli landings in 1915. Believing that a large-scale assault from the channel in bad weather against the coast of France will result in a massacre, Churchill staunchly apposes the allied command’s decision. In a momentously powerful scene we see him clasp his hands together, praying to God that the rain will be too great for the invasion to take place. He begs that it will be delayed and re-planned so that thousands of young men need not die, raising a glass of scotch to the Almighty with a belated ‘amen’. As history has shown, Churchill’s fears for the D-Day landings were proven quite false, and the liberation of Europe followed in the months after.

We have two great actors in two very different films. Putting aside nominations and critical reception, which performance is better? Which performance actually deserves the award?

darkest - hour - oldman - scott- thomas

Kristin Scott Thomas and Gary Oldman in Darkest Hour

In Oldman, the physical resemblance is staggering. Performing through make-up, especially four hours’ worth of it, is an amazing feat. It’s especially awe inspiring that Oldman manages to convey so much genuine emotion through all the prosthetics. He also manages to capture an accurate sense of the voice, without lapsing into the realms of pure imitation. He also delivers some fabulous lines, such as the charismatic “you cannot reason with a tiger when your head is in its mouth,” speech.

With Cox, we don’t the same uncanny similarity as we do with Oldman, but we still get a great deal of believable physical resemblance, not only through his face, but also in how he carries himself in his performance. What makes Cox so believable as Churchill is in his perfect embodiment of the man’s most minute mannerisms. The hunching of the shoulders, the twirl of the cigar in his hand, and the stooping over the cane all help to make the man appear so real. Oldman moves through his scenes with the swiftness and grace of a cat, yet Cox staggers and hangs his head as he walks. When trying to capture the essence of the man who drank scotch and Pol Roger from the moment he woke up, getting the right mannerisms counts for it all. Cox also injects something into the role which we never get with Oldman; the feeling of utter-helplessness. Coupled with this, Cox also captures the voice wonderfully without lapsing into exaggerated impersonation.

Brian Cox and Miranda Richardson in Churchill

It is true that Cox’s portrayal is aided by a story that deals specifically with Churchill at his most fallible yet, being able to present this quality so well makes the character you are watching far more believable and relatable. Isn’t it also more interesting to watch someone portray a vastly different depiction of a famous figure? Controversial as it may seem, it can also be said that Oldman’s performance is enhanced by the great deal of image changing makeup, something which seems to be the focus of many critics’ observations.

Poor Brian, this isn’t the first occasion his performance has been overlooked in place of another actor playing he same role. 1986’s Manhunter featured Cox as the first big screen incarnation of cannibalistic serial killer Hannibal Lecter (Cox’s version being spelt Lecktor), which has been almost forgotten in favour of Anthony Hopkins’ hissing-Chianti-drinking villain. On this occasion, it seems that Cox has sadly suffered a similar fate. Like ‘Manhunter’, it may take a few years before Cox’s great performance is appreciated for what it is.

Overall, the decision is a tough call. Both men drink, swear and mumble through bulldog-like jowls brilliantly. Yet, for me at least, Cox is the man who wins the award for best Churchill. Edging it over Oldman with his fantastic recreation of Churchill’s distinctive mannerisms. The best Hannibal, and the best Winston.


Oldman: 4/5

Cox: 4.5/5

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