Review: “Darkest Hour”

3.5 out of 5 stars.

Gary Oldman is one of the most talented and prolific actors working today, but it’s now, more than 30 years into his career, that we get what will likely be his most memorable achievement.  In “Darkest Hour,” the new historical drama from director Joe Wright, Oldman plays newly-appointed British Prime Minister Winston Churchill, who, in May 1940, must lead Great Britain at the onset of World War II and decide whether to make a peace deal with Hitler or continue fighting, despite the odds stacking up against them.

Christopher Nolan’s critical and commercial hit of the summer, “Dunkirk,” examined what happened to British troops on the front lines at the battle and subsequent invasion of Dunkirk.  “Darkest Hour” is a great companion piece to that movie, taking place during the same timeline, but looking at how the British government handled the situation back home.  Whereas Nolan’s film is undoubtedly a tense thriller, “Darkest Hour” tries to be as tense as it possibly can be, considering that the majority of the film consists of Churchill either being introspective or arguing with his fellows in Parliament, or the King.  There’s not as much of a sense of urgency to Wright’s film, despite the giant date titles ticking away the days, and Dario Marianelli’s fantastic score, that is really one of the year’s best.

But this film is more about Churchill than it is about World War II, and those quiet moments are the most crucial to understanding his character.  Churchill was chosen to replace Neville Chamberlain (played here by Ronald Pickup) as Prime Minister not because he was popular, or well-liked, but because he could handle all three parties in the House of Commons.  His views were controversial, particularly among the conservative parties, and his boisterousness in public often gave way to self-doubt in private.  In time, his inspiring speeches would help rally Great Britain and keep up morale throughout the war; this film works well as a prelude to all that, ending with Churchill energetically delivering his famous “we shall fight on the beaches” speech to Parliament in response to the successful evacuation of Dunkirk (the film “Dunkirk,” it should be noted, also concludes with us hearing Churchill’s speech over the radio).

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Oldman’s performance brilliantly explores this man’s public and private persona.  Much praise goes to the make-up team, who made Oldman disappear and transform into the spitting image of Churchill.  But Oldman doesn’t let the make-up do everything for him, even though it would have been easy to hide behind it.  Oldman truly embodies the man, not just in his voice and manner of speaking, but in his mannerisms, his frequent coughing, his boisterous laughter, his constant chomping on his cigar and the way he walks with his cane.  He is funny and clever when he verbally spars with his colleagues, including King George (Ben Mendelsohn), but expresses his uncertainty in his scenes alone with his wife, Clementine (Kristin Scott Thomas).  In those sequences, he doesn’t need dialogue; his face does the talking for him.  There’s a particularly powerful scene toward the end of the film between Churchill and his stenographer Elizabeth Layton (Lily James).  They don’t say exactly what they are feeling, but the look that passes between them is more than enough.  The supporting cast is great all around, especially the two women (who stand out in a cast otherwise populated with men), but this is Oldman’s movie, and he firmly plants his ground at the front of the Best Actor Oscar race with his electrifying performance.

Unfortunately, the rest of the film isn’t quite as electrifying.  Wright has proved himself to be a solid filmmaker when it comes to these sorts of historical dramas (think “Atonement,” “Pride and Prejudice,” and “Anna Karenina”), but the point of the film sometimes gets lost in the dramatic lighting and those long tracking shots of the winding tunnels of the British Army’s command center.  The film doesn’t start to feel like it is coming together until the third act, but fortunately for the film it is a powerful third act, one that exudes patriotism and the effect that an inspiring word can have on the average person.

“Darkest Hour” will be released in theaters on November 22.

Runtime: 114 minutes. Rated PG-13.

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