During the early days of World War II, the fate of Western Europe hangs on the newly-appointed British Prime Minister Winston Churchill, who must decide whether to negotiate with Hitler, or fight on against incredible odds.
Director: Joe Wright
Writer: Anthony McCarten
Stars: Lily James, Gary Oldman, Ben Mendelsohn
Joe Wright’s DARKEST HOUR and Christopher Nolan’s DUNKIRK compliment each other quite well. While you never see the actual evacuation of Dunkirk in Wright’s film, much of it delves into the behind-the-scenes work Winston Churchill did to mobilize the civilian fleet, and it conveys just how high the stakes really were, with England shockingly close to making peace with Hitler.
DARKEST HOUR shows that, had Churchill not been the P.M, this may well have happened, with disgraced out-going minister Neville Chamberlain (Ronald Pickup) and favored successor Lord Halifax (Stephen Dillane) pushing him hard in that direction, with them assuming there’s no way for England to defend itself against what was coming. Had they not recovered their men at Dunkirk, Britain, in essence, would have been left defenseless.
Wright, after his PAN misstep, feels right back at home in this historical epic, tightly focused on the month of May, 1940, a pivotal time that decided whether or not the UK would actually fight the Nazis, or simply lay down their arms. It offers Gary Oldman a part that should go down as one of his best, with him layering on the make-up and padding to play the lion-like P.M at his most harried. He expertly conveys the man’s power, as well as his inner struggle, with Churchill having famously been his own worst enemy, with depression and his own ego constantly felling him. For all the padding and make-up tricks to make him resemble the man, what’s most effective are the simple things, such as the way Oldman mumbles, or the occasional look of vulnerability in his eyes.
While mostly a one man show, Wright’s surrounded him with a fine cast, which includes Kristin Scott Thomas as Lady Churchill, who’s strong in the ways Winston himself perhapsisn’t, and Ben Mendelsohn as King George VI, wisely underplaying the stuttering to avoid comparisons to Colin Firth in THE KING’S SPEECH. The human aspect is represented by Lily James as his loyal secretary, who, unbeknownst to Churchill, has a brother on the front lines, giving her some motivation of her own.
While admittedly talky, with only the occasional glimpses of battle to interrupt the speech-making, DARKEST HOUR zips along as a solid pace, with Wright conveying the urgency of the month with style. The powerhouse acting gives the speeches a sense of gravitas they wouldnt have in a routine historical drama, while the lensing by Bruno Delbonnel gives this a sharp, big-screen look. It’s certainly never less than absorbing, and Oldman seems all but guaranteed to become a big part of the year’s Oscar conversation – something that’s long overdue. Will this be his big year? Quite possibly.
– Chris Bumbray, JoBlo’s Movie Emporium