Review: DARKEST HOUR Illuminates Wartime Anarchy in the UK

Gary Oldman leads the way with a grand performance as Winston Churchill in director Joe Wright's World War II drama.

Featured Critic; St. Louis, MO
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Review: DARKEST HOUR Illuminates Wartime Anarchy in the UK

It’s often observed that moviemaking, large scale moviemaking in particular, is akin to orchestrating a war.

That’s not to belittle or demean the very real horror and cost of true war; in filmmaking the severity of casualties don’t usually stem beyond the sacrifices of pride, vision, money, relationships, and sanity. War devours all of that and considerably more. This includes no less than global balance and most importantly, human lives.  

Though now unpopular -- who today, under the age of sixty, voluntarily watches classic military combat films? -- the chaotic, visceral verisimilitude and/or tense hyper-focus of war stories have long proven a formally ideal match for the language of cinema. Never mind the correlation in their very execution, considered above. It’s the very ability to cut, to pan, to pull back, to communicate massive operations on a grand scale one moment, then contextualizing the stakes of such admirable grandiosity with a twenty-frame close-up of a terrified nameless individual, one of thousands caught up in someone else’s grand mechanizations.

But what of the grand mechanizers themselves? Is their story, process and procedure not also rife with such cinematic possibility? When executed properly, the answer is yes.  

Zeroing in on Winston Churchill, spanning his pre-war rise to power into the thick of the Second World War, director Joe Wright (Atonement, Pride & Prejudice, Hanna) proves that the oft-told tale of the most important British Prime Minister of the 20th century can be as compelling, as accessible, perhaps even more-so (depending on whom one asks), than that of the Dunkirk extraction.

For those who complained that Christopher Nolan’s summertime WWII epic Dunkirk required a bit of homework and maybe a dose of abstract thought to fully appreciate, it’s Joe Wright to the rescue. Darkest Hour, serving as the flip side to Dunkirk, includes the internal ramp-up, strategic debates and execution of the famed operation at the highest levels. It’s an “easier” movie in some senses, if  no less accomplished in achieving its own vision for itself.  

Unlike Nolan, Wright has erected a directorial career in the Soderbergh-ian model; an artistic unpredictability in an unforgivingly commercial world. Never repeating himself, and apparently quite unafraid of his name being forever branded upon a failed experiment, Wright yet again tries something new to him: A glossy wartime historical drama.

Casting though, as they say, is everything. It’s not really, but it is incredibly important. Gary Oldman plays Churchill in a just-give-him-the-Oscar-now performance. The fact that it’s famous even before the movie’s opened is a well-earned honor. Once Sid Vicious, now he’s Parliament’s man at the center of a different anarchy in the UK.  

Oldman plays Churchill not as an already-immortalized bronze statue nor a hero shredded for our own identification. He’s a dithering, fitful man, a boozehound of the highest order and perhaps a pig at times, but also, he’s uncompromising when he knows he has to be, and not closed off to humane influence. This Churchill is as good with a map  as he is a bottle. When Oldman progresses the character further into one the biggest crisis management modes ever, it’s as though we can hear the unconventional cogs of his mind processing, progressing. Oldman dials this out across the span of many scenes, and many interactions.

This is where we must also salute the heroic supporting actors who made Oldman’s upcoming Awards Season possible: Ben Mendelsohn as the ever-stuttering King George VI, Kristin Scott Thomas as the devoted wife and voice of reason, Clementine Churchill, Ronald Pickup as the ineffectual Neville Chamberlain, and Stephen Dillane and as the busy Viscount Halifax. And let us not overlook Lily James, Cinderella herself, as the voice of the common people by way of Churchill’s intimidated secretary. Bravo, good woman, and bravo one and all!

The notion of a prestigious Parliament-bound awards contender may not sound like just the thing to nurse society’s ills or appease cynical film buffs who’ve had enough jockeying and campaigning for a lifetime. But, thanks to the highly compelling dramatic flare of Joe Wright and company (something, God willing, they’ll never, never, never, never give up), and the compelling visual expressionism they imbue, Darkest Hour is an unexpected light in a stuffy time. Why, it’s all enough to trigger a paper thowing tizzy.

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Darkest Hour (2017)Gary OldmanJoe WrightWinston Churchill