Darkest Hour

Reviewed By Jay Seaver
Posted 12/14/17 12:18:39

"Solid end-of-year awards material."
4 stars (Worth A Look)

Of the (at least) three films to come out this year to use the evacuation of Dunkirk as a central point, "Darkest Hour" is in many ways the most conventional and award-friendly, a biography of a famed historical figure which gives a great actor the chance to transform himself. The posters say "Gary Oldman is Winston Churchill", and on that count, the film does not disappoint. That is, in absolute terms, not a negative - Joe Wright and his team have made a very good movie about a very interesting guy, and there is something more than hagiography going on here, but it certainly plays to a lot of expectations.

The "darkest hour" in question is May of 1940 - the Nazis have effectively conquered central and western Europe, with Belgium and France soon to fall, and Britain arguably next, as nearly the entire army was deployed to France and seems more likely to be conquered or killed than brought back to defend the island. The opposition party has called upon Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain (Ronald Pickup) to resign, and while both the Tory leadership and King George VI (Ben Mendelsohn) would prefer Viscount Halifax (Stephen Dillane) as his successor - he, like Chamberlain, favors a negotiated peace - it's a coalition government and only Churchill (Oldman) will be acceptable to both major parties. So he is installed in a perilous situation - not only does he seem to underestimate just how hopeless the war is, but his own party has arguably set him up to fail.

Darkest Hour has to center on Churchill as a practical matter - he's a larger-than-life figure who would simply swallow the film if it didn't, and his actions are easily of most consequence. But often, it's the situation around him that's the most fascinating, as the elements in his own party that stepped aside immediately move to sabotage him. Though it's important not to read too much about the present day into movies about events that took place over seventy-five years ago, part of the reason this one might resonate is how history seems to be repeating; both American and British audiences may already be thinking about leaders seemingly more concerned with party politics than the actual urgent needs of their people right now. Wright and screenwriter Anthony McCarten occasionally motion toward other aspects of the man - the specter of Gallipoli is given a more nuanced treatment than it was in Churchill a few months ago, and there are occasional acknowledgements by Clementine Churchill (Kristin Scott Thomas) - but they seem rather obligatory.

The film doesn't specifically talk about class much at all, but it's something that's always in the background between a couple of bookends where it's used more directly. Perhaps the most noteworthy choice director Joe Wright makes is to emphasize specific accents, pointing out how Winston's voice, which has grown iconic over time, was of a piece with other upper-class men of the period. The King, Neville Chamberlain, Lord Halifax, and the like all had this foppish tone, and though it sounds kind of silly to modern ears, it emphasizes how Churchill is culturally more like them than the common people, which creates doubt in his mind. As shown in the film, it took Churchill making the effort to meet the untitled to strengthen his resolve, even as he's often credited with inspiring the people. It's a thread that doesn't always quite pass through the eye of the needle - some scenes feel too on-the-nose even if true, with their complements missing - but it's an idea that works, and makes an argument for this period being even more transformative than is acknowledged.

Even though he winds up doing something that is structurally very conservative, it's worth noting that Wright doesn't have it in him to make a movie that's less than bold. The titles present a relentless passage of time, and showy but effective cinematography pushes the large, brash Churchill through narrow corridors and places Churchill's secretary literally in the center of powerful circles (Lily James is nice as said secretary even if she is kind of a generic audience-surrogate type). The music is bombastic, raising back-room scheming to the same melodramatic level as the sparingly-deployed scenes from the front lines. It's a flashy, 21st-century take on the material that relies on audience familiarity with the subject matter (or, perhaps, immediate ability to look things up when watching at home), even as it scratches familiar itches.

And, yes, Gary Oldman makes a very nice Churchill indeed, disappearing underneath a fine makeup job and emphasizing the man's ego and eccentricity while tempering the bluster, letting his doubts play out but coming just short of it feeling like a revisionist take. He sells a joke or four well, and when it comes time to recreate one of the most famous speeches of the twentieth century at the film's climax, Oldman is up to the task. He plays very well against Ben Mendelsohn, who brings out King George VI's own self-doubt while still believably filling the part of someone for whom Churchill must push down intimidation. Ronald Pickup and Stephen Dillane keep Chamberlain and Halifax from drifting into villainous territory, and both Kristin Scott Thomas and Lily James bring some life to characters who could just be sounding boards.

You can't go far wrong doing what the makers of "Darkest Hour" do, and they do it well; it will win awards and wind up on top ten lists and there will be little reason to argue against it. Is it as interesting a direction to go from the same starting point as "Dunkirk" examining the limits of bravery through immersion or the feminist homefront tale of "Their Finest"? Maybe not, although there's more of that beneath the surface than one might initially think.

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