Directed by Joe Wright
Joe Wright’s “Darkest Hour”, a brilliantly executed film, completes what will be known as the “Dunkirk” trilogy of 2017, even if they are a trilogy in historical aspect only. “Their Finest”, the excellent yet weakest of the three, is a pseudo post-Dunkirk romcom set during the Blitz. “Dunkirk”, which I consider to be one of the greatest cinematic experiences of this century, is a wall-to-wall psychological examination of combat experience at its most terrifying. Then comes along “Darkest Hour”, the lone biopic of the bunch. A biopic with a major exception…Wright is not afraid to stray off the too well-worn path and tedium of moving from major event to major event, like say, “Ray” (this is the day this happened, and this is the day this happened, and so on). No, “Hour” is much more of a psycho-biopic, if you will…a beautifully written, and artfully lensed drama of how Churchill, the Churchill that we think of now, came to be. Still blustery, bulldog-ish and forceful, in this film he is also uncertain, empathetic and terrified.
It must be added, however, that ninety percent of that impressive cinematic feat lays at the feet of Gary Oldman. When he first appears, I was concerned because while everything else is unrecognizable as anything other than Churchill, it is very obviously Oldman’s eyes. But that concern is soon washed away by his ability to work well beyond the prosthetics – tapping in to your emotional response. It is, at times, overwhelming. Granted, I’m a cryer, but there were moments in this film where his work feels so genuine…with no glimpse of artifice..that I was emotionally overwhelmed. His is the kind of performance that transcends Awards season. It doesn’t matter if he wins anything…because it is so obviously a supreme harnessing of craft. (Ironically, over the past year, the best performance on film (Oldman) and the best performance on television (Lithgow) both belong to actors portraying Churchill).
The cast around him are also very good, but more often than not are simply there to get us from Point A to Point B. I’m a huge Lily James fan, but in this film, and I’m sure this is a choice of the director, she is not allowed to shine with her usual charm, even if in her closeups, she is still painfully beautiful on screen. Kristin Scott Thomas has very little to do, but she does embody her characters’ love for her husband in ways that are authentic (although, there is a scene or two that seems to have been added for no reason other than to showcase her abilities). Even Ben Mendelsohn, who is terrific as George VI, doesn’t really get a chance to break out. HOWEVER, “Game of Thrones'” Stephen Dillane (who, incidentally, is also the antagonist to Lithgow’s Churchill in the epic episode nine of “The Crown’s” first season), is outstanding, almost matching Oldman in intensity, character development and commitment to the stakes. He is a character actor of the highest order and it is my hope that he, like Mark Rylance, can parlay his success in to leading roles.
The film looks great with its subdued color pallette, long tracking shots, and a London that feels as if we have literally stepped off a bus in 1940. Further, the manner with which Wright takes us to the Front without ever seeming to leave the intimacy of the man’s interactions, is visually arresting. And because of what’s at stake, the film never drags. My only point of contention is the score. I typically love Dario Marianelli’s stuff, but this score seems disjointed…bereft of a central theme. I suppose he might have been asked to do that to keep the focus on the face of Oldman, but it feels incomplete somehow. And, not that it should matter, but it’s fairly un-listenable on its own.
This has been a great year for cinematic visions British WWII history. The well-worth-watching “Their Finest”, the epic brilliance of “Dunkirk”, Wright’s “Darkest Hour” and the introduction of “The Crown” (which chronologically follows “Their Finest” ), are different enough to keep you enthralled, even as they share the same sense of energy, tension, and quality.
I cannot recommend “Darkest Hour” highly enough. In my view, it is easily in the year’s top two or three handfuls of films.
Written on 12/17/2017