***1/2 out of ****
(for some thematic material, and language)
Released: December 22, 2017
Runtime: 125 minutes
Directed by: Joe Wright
Starring: Gary Oldman, Stephen Dillane, Ben Mendelsohn, Kristin Scott Thomas, Lily James, Ronald Pickup
There were plenty of schmaltzy, pedestrian, contrived notes in the overrated Best Picture winner The King’s Speech, a film that left me thinking, “If his speech really made that kind of impact, I probably would’ve heard about it before this Oscar bait movie.”
But there was a scene, a brief exchange really, that stood out to me. It’s when King George VI crosses paths with Winston Churchill, allowing the iconic Prime Minister to give the self-conscious monarch a stiff upper lip pat on the back.
Exasperated, I wanted to stand up in the theater, point to the screen, and yell to everyone, “There! Right there! That’s the guy whose speeches turned the tide against Hitler! That’s the movie they should make!”
Well, they made it. Darkest Hour is that movie.
More about political machinations than speeches, another apt comparison is to say that Darkest Hour is a less stately, more energized Brit version of Lincoln, one that zeros in on the U.K.’s greatest Prime Minister at his most consequential moment.
Darkest Hour tracks Winston Churchill’s rise to power just as the Nazis were annexing Europe. Set in the spring of 1940, this also works as a prequel companion piece to Dunkirk, Christopher Nolan’s sweeping war epic about the Allied retreat off the coast of France occurring at the same exact time, right when new leadership – and a new leader – was essential.
With a well-written but fairly straight-forward script, Darkest Hour ascends on the collaborative power of director Joe Wright and star Gary Oldman. This talky screenplay and its stagey simplicity could easily be adapted for the theatre as-is, unchanged, yet this film never feels that static or constrained. Joe Wright – a helmer who’s elevated the literary to the cinematic before (Pride & Prejudice, Atonement) – takes this material and, with confident vision, makes a bold movie version of it.
Orchestrating dynamic expressions of film language and craft, Wright doesn’t so much open up the frame as he does infuse every element – cinematography, music, editorial, and more – with artistic vitality and intent, lighting scenes theatrically while moving and cutting the frame cinematically. He knows when to be operatic (which is often, and more effective than I’d imagined) or intimate (a crucial phone call with FDR is done entirely in Churchill close-up).
Oldman matches Wright at every beat; this is an actor/director duo that’s on the exact same page, in complete tonal simpatico. Oldman’s Churchill is an extraordinary transformation, well beyond the impressive make-up work and vocal/physical imitations.
Oldman embodies Winston’s moniker “The British Bulldog” with convincing authority. He counters with a deft touch at wry humor, too, and in scenes with his wife, genuine affection. It feels as if Oldman has lifted this from a long live theatrical run on London’s West End, fully formed. His performance is the epitome of tour-de-force.
Along with the global dangers and risks, Darkest Hour portrays riveting political and personal ones as well. Churchill had much more at stake than King George VI did (whose portrayal here by Ben Mendelsohn is likely a closer-to-real subversive antagonist), and it’s Churchill’s resolve in the face of it all that secured Western civilization for saving, and set the stage for the U.S. to close the deal starting on D-Day.
Thematically, it provides a polarizing mix of modern sociopolitical ideologies, and it’s legitimately thought-provoking. In one sense it’s the very opposite of Brexit; in another, it’s about the rise of a populist leader whom Establishment critics (both in government and on the throne) rail against for lacking judgment and inviting annihilation. As one elitist says of Churchill, derisively, “He’s not even capable of pronouncing the word ‘peace’.”
Few will walk away equating Churchill to Trump but, as Britain transitions from Chamberlain to Churchill (and from weakness to strength), it’s impossible not to draw parallels to where appeasement of the Nazis brought the world in the 1940s and to where the same has brought us with North Korea now.
At the very least, this enthralling, credible study suggests a more thoughtful read on our modern times than our toxic, hysterical partisanship allows, and inspires a unity (like in a late-movie train scene) we desperately need today.
Darkest Hour was never a play, but it serves as a go-to case study on how to turn theatre into cinema. It does so around one of the towering figures from an entire century, which makes it all-the-more exhilarating.
I’d love to see Wright and Oldman’s stage version, actually, to experience how they would capture and reimagine what they so forcefully bring here to the screen.