DARKEST HOUR

I’m pretty sure that Gary Oldman is my favorite actor ever. No matter the project, whether it’s being directed by Francis Ford Coppola or by some hack, the man always gives it his all. His all is never terrible, though. Even in the worst films, he can sometimes be that one shining beacon of entertainment and quality. When the man fully embodies his characters, he exudes this presence that’s felt throughout the entire film. Is he an admitted overactor whose style is more suited for theater, rather than film? Perhaps. However, this is the guy who turned the common English word “everyone” into one of the most iconic movie villain lines of all time. Not just anyone can do that. 

In Darkest Hour, World War II is in its infancy, with the German army invading more and more of Europe. With France near falling, which will then make the United Kingdom the next target, the Opposition of Parliament demands the resignation of Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain (Ronald Pickup), perceiving him as weak. King George VI (Ben Mendelsohn) picks First Lord of the Admiralty Winston Churchill (Gary Oldman) to be his successor, much to the chagrin of others. While Churchill’s War Cabinet wants to attempt peace talks with Germany, Churchill refuses, claiming the fight against them must still be fought, no matter the cost. With nearly the entire Bristish Army stranded in Dunkirk, France, and on the brink of destruction, the clock is ticking as Churchill comes up with a plan to save his soldiers and his country, while others work against him. 

Look, I’m no history buff, so my knowledge of Winston Churchill is quite limited. I know he’s done some great things, and some terrible things, but that won’t be the focus of this review. So, you’re not going to get any criticisms here of history being “sanitized”, or whatever. The main reason this film exists is to tell the story of Churchill’s initial days as Prime Minister, and to show off Gary Oldman’s magnificent talent, and he certainly shows it. Magnetic would be too easy of a word to describe him here, but he just commands the screen whenever he’s on. It isn’t just the incredibly convincing makeup and prosthetic work, but his mannerisms, body language, facial expressions, and larger than life personality that makes it feel like Oldman truly became Churchill. There were many times I was leaning forward in my seat, just in awe in the sheer power of his performance. While he’s often boisterous, there are many silent scenes where he just sits and stares with this huge intensity, which is where you can see his confidence start to waver. Kristen Scott Thomas and Lily James as Churchill’s respective wife and secretary round out the excellent cast and do the most they can with their limited material. There’s not much to their characters, aside from being an extension of Churchill, who this endeavor is all about. 

So, yeah, this film is basically The Gary Oldman Show, but that doesn’t mean that’s all it has going for it. Unlike Spielberg’s Lincoln, which is a totally unfocused slog fronted by an incredible performance, Darkest Hour is surprisingly exciting the whole way through. While the film mostly consists of stuffy British blokes debating in boardrooms, it all has a great sense of urgency and tension thanks to the excellent direction from Joe Wright. With the Germans closing in on the British troops at Dunkirk, while Italy and Germany eager to begin peace talks, the clock is always ticking against Churchill and his cabinet. The superb sound mixing further amplifies the suspense, with characters off screen whispering to each other, footsteps shuffling around, or typewriting that strikes with the intensity of gunfire. A great representation of all of the noise and chaos surrounding the situation. It’s not all doom and gloom, though, as there’s a thin layer of hope that runs throughout the story. One of the film’s best scenes is when Churchill rides the London Underground and interacts with the patrons. While times are dark, he tries his best to lighten the situation and show everybody that he’s the one to do the job. 

There’s a lot of visually striking camerawork, with frequent use of pans and dolly shots that really drives up the confusion and dread the characters are feeling. When I wasn’t completely immersed in Oldman’s performance, I was drawn in by the excellent visuals that perfectly set the mood of the film. One fantastic shot takes place after a phone call with President Roosevelt, who just told Churchill he can’t help him out. The camera zooms out, boxing Churchill into a tiny room surrounded by nothing but black. As visually splendid as the film is, though, I couldn’t help but find the lighting consistently distracting. A lot of it kind of looked like one of those cheap BBC historical dramas. It was very distracting, but it did provide us with one great shot with Churchill draped in shadow, and resembling Hitler for just a split second. A perfect example that Churchill is just a man with goals and passion just like Hitler, but with much different morals and worldviews. 

All I was really expecting from Darkest Hour was an excellent performance by one of the finest actors who has ever lived. Well, I got all of that in spades, and then some. The performances aren’t just excellent, but the direction, camerawork, sound mixing, and writing all beautifully come together to make a great package. We are here to see Oldman, though, and this is, without any shadow of a doubt, his pinnacle achievement in acting. A performance that should be remembered for decades to come. Sure, the film may just exist as a vehicle for Gary Oldman to win an Oscar, but if the vehicle is a Ferrari, who wouldn’t want to take it for at least one spin? 

9/10

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