A film review by Craig J. Koban January 7, 2018

RANK: #21


2017, R, 114 mins.


Gary Oldman as Winston Churchill  /  Lily James as Elizabeth Layton  /  Ben Mendelsohn as King George VI  /  Kristin Scott Thomas as Clementine Churchill  /  Richard Lumsden as General Ismay  /  Stephen Dillane as Viscount Halifax  /  Samuel West as Sir Anthony Eden  /  Jordan Waller as Randolph Churchill  /  Ronald Pickup as Neville Chamberlain

Directed by Joe Wright  /  Written by Anthony McCarten

It's positively baffling to consider that Gary Oldman - one of our greatest living actors - has never won an Academy Award.  

Even more shocking is the fact that he has only been nominated once during his entire illustrious career, one that has seen the chameleon-like thespian play roles as varied as Sid Vicious, Lee Harvey Oswald, Beethoven, Count Dracula, and Commissioner Gordon, just to name a few.  Watching the new historical war drama DARKEST HOUR and seeing Oldman completely immerse himself into heart and soul of British Prime Minister Winston Churchill I stared at the screen in absolute awe and reflected that this is the same man that played all of the aforementioned roles.  If this tour de force and completely authentic performance doesn't nab Oldman his second Oscar nomination then what will? 

There have been so many films on the small and silver screen about Churchill, whom as British PM in the early to mid 1940s helped lead his nation and its allies to a victory against Nazi Germany, which in turn led to them winning World War II.  Not only does director Joe Wright's handsomely mounted period film capture its era with bravura strokes and great visual panache, but it also highlights the inherent cold bleakness of English politics during times of unimaginable crisis, when multiple parties were conspiring against the other when the larger threat of Hitler and the Third Reich were rearing their ugly heads on an ever-increasingly defensive world.  Best of all, DARKEST HOUR is a thrilling showpiece for the limitless immensity of Oldman's talents.  Despite behind buried under unfathomably dense layers of latex rubber and facial appliances (some of the most convincing that I've surely seen in a movie), I never felt like I was watching Oldman in makeup, mostly because he so thoroughly transforms himself into body, mind, and spirit of Churchill that the makeup almost becomes an afterthought. 



DARKEST HOUR also strongly reminded me of Steven Spielberg's LINCOLN in the sense that both are historical dramas about iconic national leaders that are not ostensibly birth-to-death biopics, but instead focus squarely in on specific time periods of their respective tenures in office that ultimately defined them.  In DARKEST HOUR's case, the film takes place during one extremely crucial month of Churchill's time as PM - May of 1940 - that ultimately had a pivotal influence on not only British history, but in directly influencing the country's war policies.  At the time much of Western Europe was falling under the tyrannical spread of Nazi Germany, which unavoidably led to fears of France being occupied and ultimately the U.K.  The PM at the time, Neville Chamberlain (Ronald Pickup), found himself resigning due to mounting public and political pressures, which led to the tough minded, unpredictable, but not entirely well loved Churchill (Oldman) to swoop him as his replacement.  Full of boundless enthusiasm and crushing concerns over his country's future well being during the war, Churchill doggedly declined Germany's frequent offering for peaceful negotiations, which the PM found laughably inauthentic.  Striking uneasy political alliances - while chiefly alienating himself from many others of powerful political influence - Churchill finds fighting off Hitler's dictatorial expansion into his country, but he also wages a cerebral war of wills with many back home in Parliament.   

I appreciated the relative storytelling economy and restraint of DARKEST HOUR, which is a war film that features virtually no combat or scenes of battlefield strife.  Wright and his writers are more fundamentally compelled by a different kind of battlefield that exists in the House of Commons and how powerful men in places of high authority duke it out to determine Great Britain's next move against Hitler in the war.  Chamberlain is seen as too conservative minded and a man of inaction, which precipitated his ousting, whereas the incumbent in Churchill is seen as unwaveringly stubborn in terms of backing down to the pressures of no one, regardless of political affiliation.  The greatness of DARKEST HOUR is that it deals with how insurmountable pressures that would destroy most sane men were levied on Churchill's already heavily loaded shoulders, leaving him feeling primarily responsible for determining what's best of Britain in the event that Hitler's encroaching armies would prove to be unstoppable on their borders.  Many in Churchill's sphere of influence plead with him to negotiate a peaceful resolution with Hitler, which he rightfully feels is impossible, seeing as there's no way to rationalize with a genocide madman.  The fact that Churchill found himself thrown into a major crisis with potentially world changing ramifications in just his first few weeks in office - and with hardly anytime being afforded to him to acclimate himself in his new position - reflects what an iron willed constitution the man must have had. 

Considering that DARKEST HOUR is basically a film without much, if any, tangible action and largely concerns political figures butting heads, it's kind of astounding how rich Wright's visual tableau is here.  In anything, this represents a major return to filmmaking form for the British filmmaker, who showed his astounding confidence in other period films like PRIDE AND PREJUDICE, ATONEMENT, and ANNA KARENINA before having his talents mostly wasted in the laughably wrongheaded Peter Pan origin story PAN.  There's a propulsive dynamism on display in DARKEST HOUR that chiefly segregates itself apart from the pack of other stiff and mannered period films.  With fluid cinematography from Bruno Delbonnel and majestic score by Dario Marianelli, Wright lovingly crafts a picture that feels authentically of its time, but nevertheless displays a contemporary stylistic hubris that's frequently breathtaking.  Wright is known for his long steady cam shots (his jaw droppingly powerful one in ATONEMENT is one of the greatest steady cam shots ever conceived and executed), and he shows ample aesthetic flare in DARKEST HOUR, such as the remarkable opening shots that starts at the ceiling of the House of Commons and slowly and surely descends down to ground level and intimately captures speech makers on both sides.   

DARKEST HOUR also emerges as a film of great, nail biting suspense despite all of us that enter the cinema to watch it already know how everything turned out.  It's the political gamesmanship and the internal battles that rarely get a public forum that makes the film so positively gripping, especially in terms of showing Churchill's mental and physical health beginning to unravel due to mounting stresses coming from every side of him.  DARKEST HOUR also makes for a splendid companion film to Christopher Nolan's DUNKIRK, another WWII film from earlier this year.  Nolan's piece was interested in the gritty war torn minutia of Operation Dynamo, the 1940 evacuation of thousands of allied forces from the beaches of Dunkirk, France.  Wright's film is about the players back home that were instrumental in ensuring that the operation was an unqualified success.  As reflections of the other, both DUNKIRK and DARKEST HOUR show how the darkest days of war act as a catalyst for countries to spring into action, no matter what the potential terrible consequences.  DUNKIRK made you feel like you were on the battlefield; DARKEST HOUR makes you feel like you're in the cigar smoke infused conference rooms and Parliamentary quarters of Churchill and those that opposed him. 

Of course, Oldman occupies nearly every frame of DARKEST HOUR, and his commanding and compassionate performance as Churchill is undoubtedly one for the ages.  Playing the largely rotund and much older political figure for an actor like him - who looks nothing like the man and is years younger than him - it would have been easy for any performer to let the padded body suit and makeup do the acting for them.  Oldman, on the other hand, flawlessly captures the nuance and complexity of Churchill so resoundingly well that we're never drawn towards to the production artifice that transformed the actor into the historical figure.  Oldman evokes Chruchill's devilish wit, pomposity, steely eyed vigor, and what made him such a stunningly evocative orator.  That, and Oldman finds time to tap into the hidden insecurities of Churchill as a man ravaged with self doubt that found it difficult to keep that guarded from the masses.  There have been many an actor that has played Churchill before, but this is the definitive portrait. 

To be fair, some of the supporting actors get a bit lost under the unfathomably large shadow of Oldman's work, such as Lily James in a small, but crucial role as Churchill's semi-beleaguered secretary.  Rather compellingly, Ben Mendelsohn appears as King George VI (the same one Colin Firth played to Oscar winning acclaim in THE KING'S SPEECH) in a quietly authoritative role that acts as a nice counter balance to Oldman's theatricality.  The King has an intriguing relationship dynamic with Churchill, seeing as he strikes a fairly uneasy partnership with the PM early on in the film that's stemming for his dislike of him, which later gives way to an emotional thawing out when it appears that the King may be forced to exile himself and family to Canada if Hitler occupies Great Britain.  As the strain of war wages on the two once adversarial colleagues find themselves becoming unlikely friends that lean on each other for support. 

The largest takeaway from DARKEST HOUR is how it shows Churchill's indomitable spirit and how using the power of words and patriotic rhetoric - when other tangible resources were in short supply - let him rally a country together to face off against a seemingly unbeatable tyrant.  If anything, Churchill inspired people by his mere presence and gritty determination alone, and at a time when it seemed unlikely that a victory over Germany was at all a possibility.  There's an intense dramatic urgency on display throughout DARKEST HOUR, which allows for it to become so hypnotically enthralling during its two hours.  And in every scene that Oldman appears as Churchill I marveled at the complex enormity of what he achieved with his layered and potent performance.  Watching all future Churchill inspired films going forward with different actors quarterbacking it all will be mightily difficult; DARKEST HOUR deserves its esteem as a benchmark war drama about one of the UK's greatest leaders.  

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