Darkest Hour isn’t your typical period piece. It’s actually one of my top films of the year for several reasons (and no real life friends, not JUST because of my ‘illness of Oldman’ Gary Oldman appreciation). While the Oscar nominated actor is nigh unrecognizable as Winston Churchill (more on that later), the film is the grand sum of it’s additional parts.
Director Joe Wright (Atonement, Anna Karenina) went into this film with something to prove after the failure of his version of the Peter Pan tale, Pan. He almost left Hollywood after the experience. In the recent Hollywood Reporter director’s roundtable, Wright commented on it:
The film is about self-doubt. And I just had an experience of extreme self-doubt and thought I was going to leave the industry. I made a film called Pan , and it lost about $100 million, and it was universally slighted by the critics, and I thought, “I don’t understand this world anymore. And I don’t know if I want to be a part of it.”
Wright’s chosen tone does play a big part in the film, one of my favorite scenes comes towards the end when a dragged down and emotional Winston has locked himself away in a dark bedroom, only to be pulled out again by both his wife Clementine (Kristin Scott Thomas who is DIVINE in this role paired with Oldman) and His Majesty King George VI (Ben Mendelsohn).
There is political intrigue, there are action sequences (*points a finger at the guys in my screening complaining there wasn’t ENOUGH ‘action for a war movie’), there are Oscar caliber performances and absolutely stellar editing and directorial choices. The cinematography alone, some of the hallway shots, beautiful in their setting but as important as any speaking character within the plot.
SCORE: 5 out of 5, will see again.
I’ve touched on a lot of the ‘good’ already, the performances, the script from Oscar nominated writer Anthony McCarten (The Theory of Everything, Bohemian Rhapsody), and the astounding makeup designed by Kazuhiro Tsuji. No really, the make up alone is something to buzz about. There hasn’t been such an artistic handle on a prosthetic in decades. This piece on Vulture talks more in depth about the artist behind the design, and the hours upon hours of work that went into the final look.
Gary. F*cking. Oldman. This guy is responsible for some of the most enduring character driven performances, able to play Dracula and Sid Vicious and Stansfield (Leon: The Professional) and really good bad Russians. There honestly hasn’t been a role (unless you ask HIM) that he hasn’t been memorable in during his 40 years in the craft.
There is a measured ferocity in his performance, giving both the English Bulldog Churchill we know from the newsreels and the previous film incarnations, but also more of the man Winston. His purposeful walking (truly if you’re an Oldman fan, you KNOW his gait, this is just how he moves no matter what the wardrobe), “he’s always ahead of the pack, leading, everyone is running after him,” just one of the small parts of movement about the portrayal that stay with you after the movie. This really should be his Oscar winning performance, truly.
Mendelsohn is a different King George than we’ve seen previously, but still the polished monarch trying to find the personal balance between the expected leader and the Englishman. He carries the role well, an Aussie playing English royalty with a speech impediment couldn’t have been easy. His scenes with Gary as Churchill are fascinating, and having seen the two together in real life, their onscreen mutual admiration is mirrored thusly.
I guess I shouldn’t say ‘bad’, but the only not as good part of the film for me personally was Lily James as Churchill’s personal secretary, Elizabeth Layton. It’s not that she was bad in the role, and it’s not that the role was poorly written.
There does need to be a straight man and an everyman, to bring the audience more into the experience. She runs crying from the room on her first meeting with Winston, but is bolstered back to action by Clementine. There are some lovely scenes between James and Oldman, one in particular alluding to a more special relationship between the two than is really touched on in the film. But for whatever reason, the character didn’t have the same well rounded polish as the rest. Not bad, but not as good.
Sure, maybe I have a leg up on my appreciation of this particular film given my love of Gaz the actor, but also maybe because I was able to cover an event with the cast and crew in my city when the film was shown at the SFFILM Honors last month.
See the film, marvel at the performances and directorial vision, and hopefully someday we’ll get a supercut of The King’s Speech, Darkest Hour, Dunkirk, and The Crown.
Darkest Hour opens in select cities December 8th, and everywhere December 22nd.