Darkest Hour (2017) / Drama-War
MPAA Rated: PG-13 for some thematic material
Running Time: 125 min.
Cast: Gary Oldman, Lily James, Kristin Scott Thomas, Ben Mendelsohn, Ronald Pickup, Stephen Dillane, Samuel West
Director: Joe Wright
Screenplay: Andrew McCarten
Review published November 28, 2017
Set in May, 1940, we see an anxious United Kingdom worried about the impending rise of Nazi Germany, under the command of Adolf Hitler. Out goes Neville Chamberlain (Pickup, The Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel), seen as an adequate Prime Minister in times of peace, but inept in terms of how to handle severe conflict, and the search is on for a replacement with the kind of leadership skills and savvy to get England through its toughest challenge yet. As the Nazis seem likely to continue their current roll in domination of Western Europe, the debate and division among the British politicians lies in whether to choose to mount a war and potentially suffer severely in defeat, or to come to terms through peace talks that would sacrifice their freedom in exchange for a favorable position under German rule. Receiving great pressure to appease, the hawkish new Prime Minister, Winston Churchill (Oldman, Criminal), must navigate deadly waters in trying to lead the British empire's survival in their 'darkest hour.'
Gary Oldman is the main attraction in Darkest Hour, a biopic about the one-month period in the rise and tenure of Winston Churchill as the Prime Minister of England. He's the best thing in the film, by far, which, without his energy and occasional bombast, is just a handsomely mounted recreation of World War II history that has been covered in film a number of times in recent years, especially in showcasing the battle of Dunkirk in a year that has already brought us a cinematic treatment at home in Their Finest and in the air and sea in Christopher Nolan's Dunkirk.
Also of striking note is the amazing use of make-up and hair, especially in the very convincing methods to make Oldman look as much like Winston Churchill as possible without the "uncanny valley" experience that so often occurs when applying a fat suit and artificial prosthetics to give an actor who is younger and smaller in frame the heft and weather necessary to look beyond the character's appearance and accept him for the actual man himself. If there's a character actor who can sell it, it's certainly Oldman, who often impresses with his ability to connect to the material even in films that are otherwise lackluster.
Surrounding Oldman are a fine group of actors, including Kristin Scott Thomas (My Old Lady) as his no-nonsense wife, Clementine, and Lily James (Baby Driver) as his hard-working secretary, Elizabeth Layton, both roles beefed up in order to give good screen time to strong actresses of their caliber. Ben Mendelsohn (Slow West) is always a welcome presence as King George VI, which will draw contrast to the Oscar-winning portrayal of the same historical figure as Colin Firth in The King's Speech. Veteran actors Ronald Pickup, as replaced prime minister Neville Chamberlain, whose service has been seen as better suited for times of peace than war, and Stephen Dillane (The Greatest Game Ever Played) as Viscount Halifax shouldn't be overlooked for their contributions, providing formidable counterparts to up the intrigue of the political machinations that would see the fall of Winston Churchill from public service almost as soon as he had begin the process.
Though based on historical accounts and actual speeches, the film does shore up the drama in order to make for a more gripping yarn, including an eleventh hour Tube ride in order to get the word on the street that might guide Churchill to make the decision to stick to his guns in confronting Germany, or to acquiesce in order to avoid being bombed put of existence. While contrivances creep in from time to time, the actors do a great job in selling these indulgences, and these moments add flavor and much-needed contrast to the inner-chamber politics that could make for a much more dry viewing experience for those looking for something more emotional and less wordy to connect them to the Churchill story.
In the end, Darkest Hour is an intelligent and thoughtful film about leadership and strength in the face of overwhelming odds, and how having the right person at the right time can make all of the difference in the fate of millions of people, especially in the power of well-placed and delivered words to inspire action. It truly is a beautiful film to look at, featuring performances to admire, coupled with a lush and beautiful score by Dario Marianelli (Kubo and the Two Strings), though its adherence to a tried-and-true formula delivery relegates Darkest Hour to being just another well-presented prestige vehicle constructed to garner awards consideration more so than to challenge or inspire as an exceptional piece of art.
©2017 Vince Leo