Darkest Hour (2017)
Release Date: December 8th, 2017 MPAA Rating: PG-13
Director: Joe Wright Actors: Gary Oldman, Lily James, Ben Mendelsohn, Kristin Scott Thomas, Stephen Dillane, Samuel West, Ronald Pickup
he year is 1940 and Britain stands on the precipice of catastrophe as Hitler’s army amasses on the Belgium border. As more and more countries succumb to the German invasion, England loses faith in its current languishing Prime Minister, Neville Chamberlain (Ronald Pickup), causing his resignation to become imminent. When favored replacement Viscount Halifax (Stephen Dillane) declines the role, controversial and unpredictable figure Winston Churchill (Gary Oldman) accepts the position. Despite heavy opposition from his own party, conspiring forces intent on removing him from office, and even disdain from the King (Ben Mendelsohn), Churchill must forge ahead with his resolve for victory at any cost against a seemingly unstoppable enemy.
Politics can be a raucous affair, particularly as power-hungry underlings demand that leadership take the blame for unpreparedness. This is, of course, decidedly cinematic during the likes of World War II. In “Darkest Hour,” which runs a bit over two hours and covers far more than an hour in the life of Winston Churchill, the main character’s initial appearance is withheld as if he’s a disfigured monster in a horror movie. Indeed, when a lit match finally illuminates his face, Gary Oldman is virtually unrecognizable, adorned in makeup, added weight, and a voice that only rarely betrays the celebrated character actor underneath it all.
With Churchill exhibiting a hint of a W.C. Fields vibe and something of a Hitchcock profile, there’s an immediately light, comical tone, as if this biopic might be a parody. “I don’t want you to be disliked,” insists his wife. A few witticisms, funny idiosyncrasies, peppy music, and a painterly quality to the cinematography (everything is doused in grays, but there’s a brightness and crispness to the environments) further contribute to general levity.
While none of those elements dissipate, the picture soon adopts the seriousness of Hitler’s progression, with one side proposing peace talks, and the other insistent on war-waging. Like a chess game, the various political factions (including the shifting support of the king) work to undermine or oust the opposition, using a combination of shadowy visuals and vigorous dialogue to emulate the mood of a political thriller or an espionage piece. The additional contention of English versus French objectives, unrest within each party, and even marital woes attempt to offset the comedy, which can’t help but to rise up at the beginnings and endings of every verbal exchange. “I wouldn’t let him borrow my bicycle!”
Major historical events weave through Churchill’s brief stint as Prime Minister as Hitler pushes through France: notably, the disaster at Dunkerque and its Calais counterpart, the former of which received a diametrically contrasting theatrical approach earlier this year with Christopher Nolan’s action-packed “Dunkirk” (and the latter of which was conveniently ignored in that film, perhaps to downplay the tragedies and highlight the successful rescue). In “Darkest Hour,” the wartime components are handled without the benefit of visceral reenactments, instead relying on prominent speeches and superb performances. Oldman is exceptional in the lead, aided by a strong supporting cast. Oddly, Lily James’ Elizabeth Layton, a typist, is given a considerable amount of screentime, though her role is entirely extraneous (and she seems to cry every time she enters the frame). She’s included primarily as a link to a more grounded humanity for the audience, despite the fact that Churchill’s actions are never so eccentric or alien as to be unsympathetic.
As an opportunity to showcase Oldman’s transformation into one of the War’s greatest participants, “Darkest Hour” is a triumph. But, just as it escalates toward a tense showdown of words, the film takes a couple of breaks to bask in sentimentality and additional humor, which hobbles the pacing. Rather than concluding with an unadulterated bang, it surrenders its momentum to Layton’s repetitious typing, a sequence or two to reiterate Churchill’s possibly failing coherency, and the revelation that the scope of the film is merely a snapshot of significant events leading up to a famous speech – not the end of the armed conflict or the end of Churchill’s stint in politics.
– The Massie Twins