Movie review: Darkest Hour

Gary Oldman stands out as Churchill in a glossy costume drama

Darkest Hour
Directed by Joe Wright
With Gary Oldman, Kristin Scott Thomas, Lily James, Stephen Dillane. Ronald Pickup, Ben Mendelsoh

Local cinema screens are experiencing a wave of films aimed at the award season. The early days of World War II come into the spotlight again with Darkest Hour, following the rise of Winston Churchill.

The film overlaps with the events in the recent film Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk, which is also expected to garner some award nominations.

Darkest Hour takes a fairly standard costume-drama approach to the material, with scenes in Parliament as people bicker in witty phrases, domestic scenes in fancy mansions, appearances by royalty and panic in windowless military command centers.

What sets it apart from the other films that have covered the same ground is Gary Oldman’s uncanny performance as the wartime prime minister and a tense script by Anthony McCarten that doesn’t sugarcoat how desperate the situation was.

Oldman won Best Actor in a Motion Picture Drama at the recent Golden Globe Awards, and several other similar awards from critics’ groups and film festivals. The film has nine pending nominations for the British Academy Film Awards (BAFTAs). Oscar nominations have not yet been announced.

The film opens with Neville Chamberlain (Ronald Pickup), the prime minister who tried to appease Hitler by breaking up Czechoslovakia, being forced to resign as it has become apparent that his policies have not worked.

As people look for a successor, nobody is even willing to say Churchill’s name out loud. People are quick to recount his past mistakes, which include a disastrous campaign in World War I and a questionable voting record.

But anyone with even a hint of knowledge of history knows where the story is headed.

The picture of Churchill as the confident leader is largely undermined by the film. His lack of support in Parliament is matched at home, with his wife Clementine (Kristin Scott Thomas) begging him to take care of himself, cut down on spending and treat the staff better.

Winston Churchill is seen from the start as drinking alcohol for breakfast and saying outrageous things, often in his pajamas with unkempt hair.

The film pivots on several speeches that are still often quoted in most documentaries about World War II. But the situation behind the scenes, with many people pushing hard for more concessions to Hitler, is less well-known.

Gary Oldman in real life looks nothing like Winston Churchill. The makeup job, however, creates a complete illusion, It is also functional, never seeming like a rubber mask and a fat suit. Oldman also manages to master the voice, which has a range of peculiarities.

US President Franklin D. Roosevelt is heard on the phone, and that voice is also an accurate imitation.

There are a few efforts to humanize the somewhat gruff Churchill. He has some sympathetic scenes with his secretary, Elizabeth Layton (Lily James), a young woman who is often the focus of his outbursts.

The script does have its share of clumsy moments. Churchill at one point says, almost randomly, that he has never had to do a certain thing. Doing just that thing comes up later as a key event, of course.

The film also shows the power of language. Churchill’s speeches still back an emotional punch, no matter how many times people have heard them before.

In a lot of ways, Dunkirk is a better film as it avoids many of the cliches of the war genre, while also showing the same sense of desperation and uncertainty.

Darkest Hour, while it does turn some notions upside down, sticks very closely to the expected motifs.

But Oldman deserves praise for his portrayal, which makes his subject seem new. The technical accomplishments in makeup, costumes and set design also are well above average. 

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