2017 | rated PG-13 | starring Gary Oldman, Lily James, Kristen Scott Thomas, Ben Mendelsohn | directed by Joe Wright | 2 hrs 5 mins |
Studio Pitch: Dunkirk from the political perspective.
Because they usually don’t drive audiences wild but do rack up statues from industry voters, the historical biopic typically has a shelf life that begins and ends around the year-end award season, disappearing from the conversation after that. When was the last time you heard someone talking about The Queen, Lincoln or, more relevant here, The King’s Speech. Often they go through the factual motions, not reaching for a larger, theme and usually dry and static. Darkest Hour on the other hand is a biopic built to last all year. It’s cleverly written, acted with life and flair and visually vibrant and inventive. It’s the best biopic since Straight Outta Compton.
In the filmmaker’s creed of covering every second of World War II, Darkest Hour comes after King Henry has suppressed his stutter in The King’s Speech and literally during this year’s Christopher Nolan film Dunkirk, showing Operation Dynamo from the perspective of Winston Churchill battle his political colleagues about the big moral decisions of potentially sacrificing 3,000 soldiers to save 300,000.
Our audience surrogate into this world is Lily James, who auditions to be Churchill’s secretary and cracks but doesn’t break under a strict set of rules that usually weed out his secretaries. We first see Churchill in bed with a breakfast and a cigar barking out dictation, and he’ll do it again from the bath or the toilet. As decisions are made and memos go out James as Churchill’s personal typist gets a front row seat and exclusive access to Churchill’s war room and war plans. Churchill in return gets immediate reaction to his decisions.
As Churchill comes to power he comes up against King George VI (Ben Mendelsohn, sans King George stutter), and parliamentary beauracrats Neville Chamberlain (Ronald Pickup), and Viscount Halifax (Stephen Delaine) who don’t just believe they should be entering into peace talks with Adolf Hitler, but only see Churchill’s reluctance to make a deal with Hitler as political powder. While the Nazi’s march across Europe, Chamberlain and Halifax are concerned about getting a new Prime Minister. It’s almost a detriment to the film that the lens of history has so cartoonized Hitler and Nazism into being obvious Big Bad Villains, because from the beginning a modern audience is going to side with Churchill and against Chamberlain (at a weirdly raucous screening of the film I attended, a woman screamed out “he’s a coward” when Chamberlain came on screen) and not truly get the difficulty the Prime Minister was up against and how easy it would have been to just make a deal. There is a stunning scene here where Churchill gets on a private line with Franklin Roosevelt and it seems like they speak across the ocean, the only two people in the world who get the threat and are hamstrung by their own government to do anything about it. Churchill was a complex and interesting character who led and incredible life and the film portrays him as such. He’s boorish and obnoxious and “undignified” for the office, but for all his faults the overwhelming fact remains that he was right – and he was right when it really mattered. When the fate of the world hung in the balance.
Oldman portrays all of those shades to the man. It’s a performance that goes beyond his makeup and physical transformation, but it’s also just another feather in the cap of an actor who has spent an entire career morphing from one chameleon-like role to the next. The Academy prestige film snobbery is shining on this performance, but Oldman has been doing this kind of work for 30 years from True Romance to Hannibal to The Fifth Element to The Dark Knight trilogy, his characters are all almost indistinguishable from each other. His pension to disappear behind makeup and wacky costumes and accents makes him like a sober, more talented Johnny Depp. With that said, everyone in Darkest Hour is excellent. Kristen Scott Thomas doesn’t have a ton of screen time but makes the most of it as Clementine Churchill, getting across to the audience in a few beats the long-suffering wife of a man who dedicated his life to climbing the political ladder.
For the most part director Joe Wright’s achievement with Darkest Hour is telling a story that isn’t particularly cinematic, one of backroom negotiations and bunker-set political maneuvering, and turning it into a work as riveting as any war film. There is no hill siege or sniper shoot-out and most of the consequences of Parliamentary action are seen stylistically in overhead crane shots. But Wright’s acute visual invention and Oldman’s ability to bring to life the witty, curmudgeonly and always quotable Winston Churchill, make the movie stand out. He elevates the film with life, color and vigor. They approach the project not just to recreate the story, as most biopics do, but to make a movie.
Finally, I adored the ending. Instead of the usual fade out to on-screen text, Darkest Hour (also like Straight Outta Compton) ends with a bang. The music and the over-the-top cinematic final set piece sends the audience out with a rousing climax. It’s the prestige drama equivalent of a comedian nailing a killer joke and walking off the stage leaving the audience wanting more. Highly recommended.