MOVIE REVIEW: Darkest Hour




For nearly the entirety of Joe Wright’s Darkest Hour, the conversations of debate surrounding Britain’s war options during May of 1940 are commenced in closed-door forums.  The men in attendance all occupy positions of power as they decide the fate of an empire.  Most of them are dressed in fine suits, including the newly appointed Prime Minister Winston Churchill, portrayed by Gary Oldman.  Others like Ben Mendelsohn’s King George VI don military regimentals adorned in medals.  None of them will carry the same burden as a working commoner or see a frontline like the 300,000-odd men presently under siege in the French port of Dunkirk.  

There is a scene late in the film, one likely improbable to any true history, where Churchill gets it in his mind to take the Underground railway to engage the everyday citizens for their opinions.  When he does, in this incredibly stirring scene, the importance and weight of the history, and the film for that matter, grow exponentially.  Voice after voice, young and old, man and woman, offers the same resolute response.  In that moment, all of the political speechifying and partisan posturing fade for the original answer that never left Churchill’s heart from the beginning: FIGHT.

LESSON #1: THE FIGHTING SPIRIT OF A PROUD NATION-- The people want to fight.  Winston wants to fight.  Deep down, the king wants to fight rather than leave his homeland to seek exile to Canada.  Any good leader, be they monarch or politician, should act for and on behalf of the public interest.  The pulse of the people comprises a country’s beating heart and blood of its indomitable spirit.

However, the bureaucrats on the War Cabinet gaze upon the pins and arrows on battlefield map in their bunkered facility marking an indomitable German army running roughshod over land and air through any resistance as nation after nation in western Europe falls like dominoes.  Stay in Dunkirk and British forces will be wiped out, leaving the British Isles defenseless.  The dire majority consensus is to fathom the unthinkable: consider options of surrender and occupying foreign rule from Adolf Hitler and the Nazis.  That is the fate facing the man at the center of the decision-making.

Darkest Hour and Gary Oldman exhibit tremendous fight to match the vigor of the era.  The film builds its mounting prospects of calamity and clashes of dissension with polish and gumption, avoiding many of the dull notes normally saddling most other behind-the-war-room yak-fests.  The Theory of Everything screenwriter Anthony McCarten shrewdly skips laborious biographical notes and tautly fixates primarily on the two weeks of debate leading up to Operation Dynamo on May 28, 1940, the first of Churchill’s on the job as the head of His Majesty’s Government.  

True to every Joe Wright film, Darkest Hour exceeds in artistic showmanship.  A swirling blend of high vertical and tracked linear cinematography from four-time Oscar nominee Bruno Delbonnel (Amelie) frame a presentation of faces and cigar smoke frequently lit by blinding and invasive fissures of light, both natural from windows and artificial from the lamps above heads.  Frequent Stephen Frears editor Valerio Bonelli cuts kinetic work to dance with Wright’s penchant for movement and transition.  Towering sound and a pompously peppy score interludes from Academy Award winner Dario Marianelli (Atonement) give additional harumph energy.  All elements create a theatrical gloss and glow, a calling card for anything directed by Joe Wright.  Frenetic as his work can be (i.e. Pan), you can never call what your eyes see and your ears hear as flat.

The concussive clout of Gary Oldman looms large and punches lumpy contusions on anything that would come close to going flat.  Sight unseen ever since the first official production photo of Oldman in makeup appeared nearly a year ago, many have long handicapped him as the proverbial favorite for the Best Actor Oscar.  Patience should have been preached because, outside of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy and his ensemble work in the Harry Potter and The Dark Knight franchises, Oldman’s resume for the last decade had not exactly been stellar, filled with trashy villain roles.  Darkest Hour reminds us of his incredibly volcanic talent.  Always the chameleon, the man dexterously and methodically captures Churchill’s speech pattern, gait, and other physical mannerisms.  His dedicated power is monumental.  Sight-now-seen, he earns the Oscar buzz and then some.  

LESSON #2: ONE DELUSIONAL MAN IS ANOTHER’S PROGRESSIVE THINKER-- Underused and undersung in a supporting role, Kristin Scott Thomas’s Clementine Churchill assesses her husband before assuming the role of Prime Minister as a man who has shown a deterioration in manner by putting his political life first.  Winston’s opponents go further to label him delusional and insufferable in his stance to wage war at any cost.  High in both risk and toll, the strength and courage imbued in Churchill’s prognostications and plans were warranted.

LESSON #3: FINDING AND USING THE RIGHT WORDS-- In Darkest Hour, Churchill’s greatest challenge was combating the labels of Lesson #2 and pushing his agenda for victory, even against poor odds (“if necessary for years... if necessary alone”).  Trying to change minds and harden hearts in a war room of opponents and naysayers was going to take the right words.  His speech-writing, seen here through the eyes of Lily James’ flustered typist Elizabeth Layton, is the stuff of legend.  The orated results pushed the proper message and changed the course of history.