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Movie Review: ‘Darkest Hour’

“You cannot reason with a tiger when your head is in its mouth.”

History can teach us much, especially when an expert filmmaking crew led by director Joe Wright (Atonement) has Gary Oldman in the lead role in this World War II biopic. As British Prime Minister Winston Churchill, Oldman adds to an impressive collection of historical and memorable characters including Ludwig van Beethoven, Sid Vicious, Lee Harvey Oswald, Rosencrantz, Commissioner Jim Gordon, Sirius Black, Rev. Arthur Dimmesdale, and Dracula plus Bob Cratchit, Jacob Marley, and Tiny Tim.

Oldman commands the screen for approximately 125 minutes through his fantastic makeup work by Kazuhiro Tsuji, which puts almost half Oldman’s own weight on him. The mannerisms, tone, and movements meld beyond imitation or impression as audiences quickly assimilate themselves with Winston Churchill’s persona…even if they never watched Winston and have no idea who he was. It obviously helps to have some historical knowledge here (e.g. the heroic Dunkirk evacuation, the Gallipoli Campaign, etc.) so the references have a deeper meaning and context, but filmmakers still cover the basics while supplying real heroic moments in a vibrant, engaging plot.

Set in May 1940 during Winston’s first month in office as the Axis Powers and Nazi Germany engulf Europe, Darkest Hour takes some liberties with the actual events, timelines, and character appearances, most notable in Lily James’ portrayal of Winston’s secretary Elizabeth Layton, who was not actually at her post until 1941. James (Cinderella, Baby Driver) addresses gender roles, local politics, and other important points as a segue to Winston and the people that eventually culminates into a rousing, yet natural sequence in a subway train.

Winston and Elizabeth’s collaboration creates a great personal tone among the historical events. “I’m coming out in a state of nature!” Winston warns Elizabeth as he gets himself ready for the day. Audiences also see Winston orating in bed while Elizabeth dictates in their first volatile encounter that also provides some character growth that’s necessary for the tough road ahead as the British empire must build community and strength among overwhelming odds. In this story, Winston never has a direct face-off with Hitler but there are many references including a scene when Winston closes a door to a room where a Hitler speech blares on the television.

Ben Mendelsohn (Rogue One: A Star Wars Story, Ready Player One) has a great role as King George VI while Ronald Pickup (The Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel) plays Neville Chamberlain. Sir John Hurt was set to portray Chamberlain, but was never filmed due to Hurt’s failing health conditions that mirrored Chamberlain’s at that time. This film is dedicated to Hurt.

Kristin Scott Thomas plays Winston’s wife Clemmie who should have got more screen time because she’s often forgotten. She has some great, tender moments and it’s natural because she knows Winston best. She does get one of the film’s best lines to encourage Winston right before he has an important meeting. Stephen Dillane (The Hours, John Adams, Game of Thrones) plays Viscount Halifax, a Conservative politician and hopeful for Prime Minister.

The cinematography captures every smoky, hazy interior movement while the exterior scenes are crisp and nostalgic with excellent costume design. A slow-motion sequence with Winston looking out into the street from his car is particularly effective. These scenes do not try to romanticize the era, but there is a great aesthetic appeal in that time…just not in those circumstances.

Wright’s epic shots from above prompt a unique sense of continuation as they foreshadow future bombings while portraying current war sequences with creative transitions back to Winston’s strategic activities in the United Kingdom. One memorable audio sequence between Winston and U.S. President Franklin Theodore Roosevelt looks like it incorporated real audio files near the end as the sequence ends with a long shot.

Screenwriter Anthony McCarten (The Theory of Everything) definitely takes advantage of oratory gems like “He mobilized the English language and sent it into battle” while Italian composer Dario Marianelli reteams with Wright (Pride and Prejudice) for the fifth time on the quality musical score.

The Verdict

Recommended (*** out of four stars) and rated PG-13 for some thematic material. Besides Oldman’s likely Oscar nomination for Best Actor, look for recognition in makeup, costume design, set design, and cinematography. Be sure to read the ending facts before the ending credits. Note: Churchill did lose the 1945 election for Prime Minister, but he was re-elected to a term from 1951 to 1955.

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