Darkest Hour

darkest-hour-rev Darkest Hour  (2017)    Focus/Drama    RT: 124 minutes    Rated PG-13 (some thematic material)    Director: Joe Wright    Screenplay: Anthony McCarten    Music: Dario Marianelli    Cinematography: Bruno Delbonnel    Release date: December 15, 2017 (Philadelphia, PA)    Cast: Gary Oldman, Kristin Scott Thomas, Lily James, Ronald Pickup, Stephen Dillane, Ben Mendelsohn, Nicholas Jones, Samuel West, David Schofield, Jeremy Child.  

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 Darkest Hour is the second film this year about British Prime Minister Winston Churchill (the first being last summer’s turgid Churchill) and the third to deal with the German invasion of Dunkirk and subsequent evacuation (after Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk and the comedic Their Finest). It’s understandable then that viewers suffering from battle fatigue might consider giving this latest film a hard pass. That would be a shame; they’d be missing out on a good movie. Besides, Darkest Hour is a completely different kind of war movie. Whereas Dunkirk engages the viewer on a visceral level by placing him/her right in the thick of all the confusion, Darkest Hour operates more on an intellectual level by showing us the politics behind this pivotal (and yes, dark) chapter of WWII.

 darkest hourDarkest Hour, directed by Joe Wright (Atonement), is bookended by two historically significant speeches in the British House of Commons. The first is the call for the resignation of PM Neville Chamberlain (Pickup, The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel). Deemed too weak to deal with an invasion by Germany, they want somebody that both parties will support. When Foreign Secretary Lord Halifax (Dillane, Game of Thrones) turns down the position, Churchill (Oldman, Leon the Professional) is invited (reluctantly) by King George VI (Mendelsohn, Rogue One) to take office. He carries with him the stain of the disastrous Gallipoli Campaign (1915-16). He’s gruff, temperamental and boorish. He’s also not afraid to engage in a war with the Germans even though his political colleagues want him to enter into a peace treaty negotiated by Italy (i.e. Hitler’s lackey Mussolini).

 Most of Darkest Hour deals with Churchill’s political and personal struggle during those dark first days in spring 1940. When British troops are trapped by enemy forces on the beach at Dunkirk, he works like hell trying to keep them alive until he can evacuate them which he famously does by calling on civilians with boats to pick up the soldiers and bring them home. He’s also faced with the decision to essentially surrender to Hitler or fight. His uncertainty takes him to the London Underground where he asks a group of train passengers what he should do. It leads to his famous “We shall fight them on the beaches” speech to Parliament.

 At the center of Darkest Hour is a brilliant performance by Oldman that will probably win him a long-overdue Oscar. The makeup and prosthetics are well-done. He has the physicality down pat with the PM’s posture and walking style. He yells and blusters. This is all well and good but there’s much more to Oldman’s performance. He digs deep to find and show Churchill’s insecurity. He just wants people to like him. He also wants to do right by the people. It’s a complex performance that requires a great deal of skill; it would be easy for a less-skilled actor to find himself on the verge of parody. Also very good is Kristin Scott Thomas (The English Patient) as his acerbic but supportive wife Clementine. She’s not afraid to call him out on his sometimes rude behavior like when he makes his new secretary Elizabeth Layton (James, Baby Driver) cry and nearly quit on her first day. Speaking of James, she’s also quite good; I just wish her character was fleshed-out a bit more. She has personal reasons for wanting to know what’s going on behind all the closed doors in the underground war room which we eventually find out. I just think her character could have been developed a bit more.

 As good a movie Darkest Hour is, it falters when it comes to narrative. Simply put, it’s very talky. Not that the conversations aren’t interesting. For the most part, they are. All the talking just slows down the movie. The dark cinematography certainly doesn’t help. It’s striking to look at for a while but becomes tiring about midway through. I appreciate that Darkest Hour is an intelligent film that assumes intelligence on the part of the viewer. If I’m being honest, I learned a few things myself. These days, intelligence is a rare quality in film. We need films like Darkest Hour to balance out movies like Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle and Star Wars: The Last Jedi designed for mass appeal. It has its flaws but it’s still worth checking out for Oldman.

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