Movie Beat: Gary Oldman fantastic in “Darkest Hour”


by Jenniffer Wardell

Rated PG-13 for some thematic material

Written by Anthony McCarten

Directed by Joe Wright

Starring Gary Oldman, Lily James, Ben Mendelsohn, Kristen Scott Thomas, Stephen Dillane, Samuel West and more

Grade: Three and a half stars

 

History is more surprising than we realize.

Proof of that can be found in “Darkest Hour,” an intimate, surprisingly gripping little drama that shows both Gary Oldman’s ability to disappear into a role and just how close we all came to screwing up World War II. Though the action stays firmly in drawing rooms, meetings and offices for most of the movie’s run – the screenplay’s definition of an exciting outing is the London Underground – the tension gets white-knuckled at some points. Even though we all know how WWII ends, there are moments when you may find it impossible to believe we ever managed to pull it off.

The movie chronicles the days just before and just after Winston Churchill became Prime Minister, which was a particularly dark period of the war for Allied forces. The bulk of their forces were trapped at Dunkirk, the sea and bombing runs cutting off any opportunity for escape, and there’s an immense amount of pressure from Parlaiment to cede Europe to Hitler in the hopes that he’ll leave England alone. Also, almost no one in Parlaiment likes Churchill even a little bit.

The script has all the best elements of courtroom-style dramas, handled deftly enough that the movie feels like a thriller at times. Director Joe Wright does an excellent job of transmitting the characters’ tension and fear directly to the audience, putting us right there in the bunker next to them. In their hands, historical fact becomes impossibly high stakes.

The movie even offers a surprising amount of emotional satisfaction, with people banding together, triumphant moments, and plucky underdogs overcoming impossible odds. The one flaw in the narrative arc is that the ending comes off as somewhat abrupt, though given the fact that the movie is only about a small portion of a rather large war that was inevitable on some level.

More importantly, there’s a surprising amount of relevance for modern audiences. Churchill’s views about the consequences of tolerating Nazis should be run in place of all those articles showing them as fluffy and normal.

Oldman is uncanny as Churchill, disappearing into the role so thoroughly that I regularly had to remind myself that it was actually him. A portion of that credit goes to the movie’s makeup team, and their work on Oldman should be studied by other artists looking to transform someone’s face in an entirely realistic manner.

Oldman’s acting, however, is vital to making the character work. His Churchill is magnetic, propelling the plot and commanding audience attention whenever he’s onscreen. He’s also human, however, painfully susceptible to vulnerability and doubt.

The one problem with Oldman’s performance is that no one else really gets a chance to shine. Ben Mendelsohn does the best job of it as King George VI, balancing a belief in tradition (and a sincere dislike of Churchill) with a genuine desire to do what is best for his country. Kristin Scott Thomas is wonderfully wry and wise as Clementine Churchill, but she’s there only as an accent to her husband. Lily James does a good job with what she’s given, but her character is mostly there as an observer and isn’t allowed much death. Stephen Dillane is there mainly to give Churchill sour looks, and while he’s good at that I can’t help but think he’d be capable of so much more.

You won’t think about of this, however, until you’ve left the theater. While you’re watching the movie, you’ll be too worried about the fate of the free world.

(Photo © Focus Features)

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