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Review: Darkest Hour

February 28, 2018

By John Corrado

★★★½ (out of 4)

There is wonderful serendipity to the fact that Darkest Hour was released in the same year as Dunkirk, with both films focusing on the same specific events in World War II, albeit approaching them from different sides.

Where Christopher Nolan’s film was an on the ground look at the Battle of Dunkirk that put us right in the middle of the action, Joe Wright’s Darkest Hour shows us the political maneuvering behind the heroic evacuation of the thousands of Allied soldiers who were trapped on that beach.  The films are further connected by the fact that they are both in the running for Best Picture at the Oscars.

The film takes place during the still early days of World War II in May of 1940.  The entire film unfolds over several weeks, and starts with Winston Churchill (Gary Oldman) assuming the role of Prime Minister of Great Britain, following Neville Chamberlain’s (Ronald Pickup) abrupt resignation.  Churchhill is a brash politician who has his own way of doing things, and he clashes with his political rivals, who are looking for ways to oust him from power.

While many of his fellow parliamentarians would rather broker peace talks with Germany rather than push for all-out war, Churchill sees an imminent threat to the UK and knows that there is no reasoning with a madman like Hitler, and wants to pursue bolder options instead to ensure the defeat of the Nazi regime.  Days after becoming Prime Minister, Churchill gets the chance to prove himself as a true leader when they get word that thousands of Allied soldiers are trapped in the French port of Dunkirk, and he orders the evacuation of the troops under the codename Operation Dynamo.

The film shows Churchill as a Conservative leader with populist impulses who ruffled the feathers of his rivals in the House of Commons, but was also able to gain the trust of regular people.  This is perhaps best detailed in a fictitious but nonetheless moving scene where he rides on the London Underground and talks to the working class passengers about his wartime plans.  The result is a compelling and also humanizing portrait of the former Prime Minister.  The film doesn’t shy away from showing some of his temperamental character flaws, while also thrillingly depicting his effectiveness as a negotiator, despite being under immense pressure to prove himself as countless lives hung in the balance.

Gary Oldman carries the film with a stunning performance, bringing depth and nuance to his portrayal of Churchill.  Disappearing behind layers of seamless makeup that make him almost unrecognizable, the actor is positively excellent here, be it in the quieter dramatic moments when we see the weight of the decisions he is faced with making register on his face, or when he is delivering his thunderous speeches to parliament.  This is his show through and through, and after seeing the film, it’s easy to understand why he has been dominating awards season for the role.

The ensemble cast is rounded out by a series of fine supporting turns, including memorable work by Lily James as Churchill’s young typist Elizabeth Layton, who is tasked with transcribing his ramblings and helping him craft his now-famous speeches.  Because Churchill was famous for his rousing speeches and way with words, it’s fitting that Anthony McCarten’s screenplay keeps the dialogue flowing at a quick clip.  The script is not only notable for the way that it organically works in a lot of relevant historical details, but also for injecting some moments of levity and humour into the proceedings, which keep this from ever becoming a dry period piece.

Joe Wright keeps the story moving at a good pace, and he directs the film with his usual eye for visual flair.  Bruno Delbonnel’s beautifully textured cinematography really impresses, making interesting use of shadows and light.  The camerawork brings added tension to the sequences in the House of Commons, especially with the sweeping crane shots that bookend the film.  The film culminates with Churchill’s iconic “we shall fight on the beaches” speech, which has been recreated here in a compelling way, and provides a rousing grand finale to Darkest Hour.

When Christopher Nolan set out to make Dunkirk, he said that he didn’t want to make a war movie where people sit around negotiating and plotting battle plans while looking at maps.  So it’s by sheer luck that Joe Wright decided to make this movie when he did, because the two compliment each other in a lot of really fascinating ways.  This is a film that focuses almost entirely on the war room politicking behind this daring and politically risky rescue mission, which included sending civilian boats out to aid in the evacuation.  Because of this, Darkest Hour becomes even more resonant and impactful when viewed alongside Dunkirk, with the latter raising the stakes of the former.

The Battle of Dunkirk was incidentally also depicted in Joe Wright’s 2007 film Atonement, shown in a single take tracking shot.  What Darkest Hour serves as is a prime example of a historical drama done right, bringing past events to life in a way that is not only compelling, but also timely and urgent.  Built around a brilliant performance by Gary Oldman, this is ultimately a solid and well crafted period piece on its own terms, that also provides an interesting and worthwhile companion piece to Dunkirk.

Darkest Hour was released on Blu-ray and DVD yesterday.

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