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Sunday, December 3, 2017

Review: DARKEST HOUR is your typical biopic take on the Dunkirk conflict

This past Summer, Christopher Nolan's Dunkirk hit like a bolt from the blue on the cinematic landscape. An auteurist showcase disguised as an audience crowdpleaser, but what was most remarkable about it, beyond being the finest film in the continually meteoric trajectory of the world's most popular filmmaker, was its own atypicality within the "dramatic reinterpretation of real world events" space. A film made all the more vital by its lack of vital characters, and how it interpreted the expendability of these young men being sent off to war through our biased viewpoints through decades of remove. Its near silent nature gave way to the most realistic portrayal of in-combat dynamics in recent memory, though you could forgive it one or two moments of chest-puffing - it's Mr. Nolan after all.

Darkest Hour (not to be confused with the 2011 clunker THE Darkest Hour, though it's a mistake I seem to make with regularity) is Joe Wright's picturesque take on the same time frame. Though he wisely casts his net away from the conflict on the French shores and instead decides the best dramatic approach is to pay attention to what the bureaucrats are up to during these same tumultuous weeks (and months). In a way, Wright's attempt to make up for a number of his recent big screen misfires produces a suitable companion piece to Nolan's tour de force, not only as a film that fills the gaps that its forbearer leaves open, but also an example to highlight that previous effort's essential nature within the genre.

Of course, it goes without saying, though it will be said anyway, the centerpiece of the film is Former British Prime Minister Winston Churchill and his ongoing travails just before taking over at the head of Parliament and the struggle he faced with his fellow MP's to determine Britain's continued role in the battle against Hitler's growing domination of Europe. Churchill is driven by a dogged determination to continue the fight, and to keep the Axis powers off of Britain's shores, while many of his fearful colleagues - worn tired by the losses in France and elsewhere, no longer want to see their boys murdered on foreign soil and seek to sue for peace.

Hunkered in an underground war facility, with time of the essence, Churchill must manage the biggest challenge of his already event-filled life, while also determining how to get the nation's stranded sons home.

It's hard to deny that Wright has designed a real crowd-pleaser that worms its way into your heart, particularly with its gambit play towards the tenacity of the British people as if it were an object to be grasped. But Anthony McCarten's script is the textbook definition of "safe", with all the typical trappings. The larger than life shots of Churchill and imposing views of Parliament's chambers, the musical swells aimed to manipulate its audience's emotions in a very tactile way, and the typical great man archetype in which this entire story is conceived. To wit, you'd be led to believe, based on the way this film is framed, only Churchill was on the right side of history and Darkest Hour consistently plugs away at the immense pressures he faced in his attempt to "never surrender", until he's even able to win over the fairly adversarial King himself (with Ben Mendelsohn essaying the best take on George VI of the three recent portrayals on both the big and small screen).

Perhaps in an even more transparent fashion to give its audience something relatable to grasp onto, they make a big play of Lily James' character, Elizabeth Layton, who was indeed Churchill's personal secretary from 1941-1945, and not only is she intended to be the POV character for the audience for whom a ton of exposition can be vomited upon, but she basically is Churchill's moral compass throughout. The issue at hand is that while James' performance is capable, given the maudlin nature of the material, every moment we spend with her and not Churchill, is when there's a collective sense of watch checking and it's hard not to see the strings being pulled via her sole function within the film's narrative backdrop.

But indeed, it's Churchill that keeps Darkest Hour just above par through Oldman's absolutely heavyweight performance. His casting itself is likely the most outre aspect of the entire production, given Oldman's slimmer frame and the smarmier qualities that have made him a go-to rogue in so many standout roles over the decades. But, underneath a boatload of facial prosthetics, makeup and layers and layers of padding, one of the industry's most underappreciated character actors is finally given his time to reach for Oscar gold and does so with aplomb. Oldman is barely recognizable, which is truly saying something for an actor who has made his career as a chameleon; but the way he's able to just melt into the physical changes required to bring this historical titan to life are likely worth the price of admission itself. There's a moment that especially strikes at the heart of Oldman's work, when Churchill has to make a desperate call to FDR in order to secure more boats in order to save their stranded soldiers. While we often see Churchill portrayed as an unflappable blustery sort, in those moments, Oldman gives life to something we so rarely see in the historical record: his vulnerability. I often enjoy seeing teeth marks left on the scenery, but Oldman knows just when to dial it back and gives a full-fledged portrayal that basically props up Darkest Hour on his shoulders alone.

In an ordinary year, Darkest Hour would be your Oscar bait biopic that could very well be making a King's Speech style run...but this isn't a typical year, and after Dunkirk paved a far more innovative way for this story to be told (the comparison becomes all the more pronounced when you realize both movies end with the same speech given to Parliament), it's difficult to see Darkest Hour as much more than a pleasant diversion after the real show has already ended.

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