Review: Darkest Hour (2017)

Darkest Hour

Rating

Director

Joe Wright

Screenplay

Anthony McCarten

Length

2h 5m

Starring

Gary Oldman, Lily James, Ben Mendelsohn, Kristin Scott Thomas, Stephen Dillane, Samuel West, Ronald Pickup, Richard Lumsden, Hannah Steele, Adrian Rawlins, Charley Palmer Rothwell, Anna Burnett, Nicholas Jones, Jordan Waller

MPAA Rating

PG-13 for some thematic material

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Soundtrack

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Review

Every director chooses to explore history at some point in their carers. For some directors, history is a significant element of each of their films. Joe Wright has explored the past in myriad ways, but has never tackled a biopic before Darkest Hour, an exploration of Winston Churchill’s attempt to bring British soldiers home after being stranded at Dunkirk.

Winston Churchill, played here with irascible self-absorption by Gary Oldman, steps in to fill the shoes of Neville Chamberlain (Ronald Pickup) who has resigned because the nation has no confidence in his ability to lead Britain against the threat of Nazi Germany. Among Churchill’s first responsibilities is coming up with a plan to rescue British and French soldiers trapped in Dunkirk before they can be slaughtered by encroaching Nazi troops.

Darkest Hour visits the battlefield in brief, exploring how military leaders in the field respond to Churchill’s sacrifice of soldiers at Calais in order to buy time for the Dunkirk evacuation. As risky as it would be to present these events from a purely back-room perspective, Wright does an admirable job keeping tension high while presenting a formidable man with a great many foibles as both vainglorious fame-seeker and efficient tactician.

Wright’s appreciation of British history is evident in every film he makes and while Christopher Nolan brought a different kind of life to the events at Dunkirk, Wright gives us a fascinating approach to the same situation. One of the most interesting distinctions between Darkest Hour is how Wright manages to keep the film taut and exciting while exploring war in an almost distant, but no less potent way.

Darkest Hour is filled with charged performances, but they would be nothing without the anchor that is Oldman under heavy makeup and padding as the legendary Churchill. Slouched posture, affected speech patterns, and chomped cigars help bring the larger-than-life figure to the big screen. Oldman has clearly done his research, delving so fully into his performance that there is never a moment where his acting doesn’t feel authentic and credible. Finding passion and sorrow within the depths of this potent political figure requires only the best talent and Oldman is damned fine in the role.

The rest of the cast is solid as well. Kristin Scott Thomas is patience personified as one of only two figures in the film that can keep Churchill’s personality in check. The other is his secretary played with quiet dignity by Lily James. Ben Mendelsohn does a satisfactory job as monarch King George VI, though after seeing Colin Firth in the role, it’s hard not to seem meager in comparison. Stephen Dillane, Ronald Pickup, Nicholas Jones, and Samuel West are all fine in their periphery roles.

Wright has had such great experience with period dramas that it’s unsurprising that his production designer (Sarah Greenwood), costume designer (Jacqueline Durran), and makeup team have put together something so visually appealing even while suffused with muted tones. Every dark corner of the war room, the cramped carriages of the Underground, and the palatial halls of Buckingham Palace are given bountiful detail.

Dario Marianelli infuses it all with his lush score and cinematographer Bruno Delbonnel crafts some marvelous shots, evoking a sense of grandness within a story that is physically, but not emotionally, confined. Wright’s films always feel bigger and bolder than one would expect, especially when presenting a dialogue-heavy production. He gives dramatic weight to a film that could have existed almost exclusively on a theater stage, which makes it an interesting companion to his own Anna Karenina, which used theatrical staging as a design motif for a bolder picture.

This is a film that could stand alongside Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln and Schindler’s List as a teaching tool for young minds eager to learn more about history. It could easily be paired with Dunkirk and Wright’s own Atonement in a section of class dealing with World War II Britain.

For Darkest Hour, a seemingly small environment is given sufficient space to breathe and explore. It feels more expansive than it really is. While Anthony McCarten’s screenplay is well researched and filled with bold proclamations and speeches, it’s Wright’s direction and Oldman’s performance that give the film its boldness and potency.

Oscar Prospects (Originally Selected Prior to the Oscar Nominations)

Guarantees: Actor (Gary Oldman)
Probables: Original Score, Production Design, Costume Design
Potentials: Picture, Original Screenplay, Film Editing, Cinemtaography, Makeup & Hairstyling, Sound Mixing
Unlikelies: Director

Review Written

May 15, 2018

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