Friday, December 22, 2017


The Second World War has provided cinema with endless stories for over 70 years, and in the past decade we have been treated with an unofficial “series” of films detailing the British involvement in the global conflict. These films have explored leadership (THE KING’S SPEECH), codebreaking (THE IMITATION GAME), and the battlefield (DUNKIRK). With director Joe Wright’s DARKEST HOUR, we are treated to a behind-the-scenes look at the hard decisions made during the uncertain early days of the war, mostly made by one man.

In 1940, as Hitler’s massive forces begin to close in on Europe, Winston Churchill (Gary Oldman) is named Prime Minister by King George VI (Ben Mendelsohn). As Churchill tries to organize the war effort, he is pressured by his own party to negotiate a surrender with Germany, while his own feelings tell him to fight for his country.

Franklin D. Roosevelt, who was the U.S. President during WWII, once said that “war is young men dying and old men talking”. DARKEST HOUR seems to hang its hat on this quote, as the bulk of the film is spent with politicians battling it out in dark war-rooms and conference halls, with very little war-time action shown. Far from the typical Hollywood biopic, the film focuses on Churchill’s struggles to earn respect from his own party and people, most of whom believe he was completely unqualified for the massive task of handling the war effort. A lot of tug-of-war is going on, with Churchill torn between going for negotiations or fighting on, with the former option possibly not in the best efforts of his country, and the latter guaranteed to cost many, many lives.

Churchill is front-and-center of it all, as he should be, and he is shown as a complex character who is loyal to king and country but seriously flawed. He’s blunt and oafish, drinks too much and is likely to insult everyone in the room. He finds support in his wife (Kristin Scott Thomas) and his personal typist (Lily James), and in the intimate moments where he lets his rough shielding down, he’s revealed as a man full of heart. He literally has the weight of the world on his shoulders, and we feel it all times.

Director Joe Wright does great work in keeping the pressure on, the clock ticking, and the constant feeling of isolation. The stakes are enormously high, and despite being a film with very little by way of action, it is always engaging. It is shot and edited beautifully, and Dario Marianelli’s score is excellent.

Acting is superb. Gary Oldman vanishes into the character and gives us the best performance of his career. The thick prosthetics he wears are no issue and he powers right through it. His character is funny, witty, and rude…but still a towering figure and an iconic performance. Kristin Scott Thomas, as Churchill’s loyal wife, is up to the task of matching up with Oldman, as is Lily James, who as a newcomer to her typist position, acts as an audience surrogate to guide us through the complexities of the time. Ben Mendelsohn makes the character of King George VI his own, and resists the temptation to mimic portrayals that have come before him.

A good bulk of DARKEST HOUR deals with the crisis on the beaches of Dunkirk, a situation in which nearly the entire British army was wiped out. It’s a pivotal part of Churchill’s time as PM, and the film gives us a behind-the-curtain look at what was going on in the war-room, making DARKEST HOUR a perfect companion piece to Christopher Nolan’s DUNKIRK of this year. Knowing that isn’t a requirement to enjoy DARKEST HOUR, but it is a slight enhancement, as this film does stand tall on its own as a unique and powerful entry into WWII cinema.


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