Darkest Hours (2017)
Directed by Joe Wright
There’s no sense in burying the lede—if you want to know why “Darkest Hour” is an undeniable victory, look no further than the man in the fat suit. Gary Oldman, in what might be considered the brightest two hours of his career, flawlessly humanizes Winston Churchill. After a while, you forget that you’re not watching actual video footage of the wartime prime minister. It turns the old idea of “acting that you can see” on its back—despite spending a total of 200 hours having prosthetics applied, and committing to a pitch perfect accent, Oldman never makes his performance about the acting…if that makes sense. He’s committed at all times to depicting Winston Churchill, notoriously disagreeable but also undeniably humorous, as a caring, relatable, and likeable figure. The race for Best Actor is no contest, as far as I’m concerned. For a moment, I forgot who else was even being considered.
In May 1940, before U.S. involvement in WWII, Hitler’s troops controlled a worrisome amount of European land. When the British Parliament loses faith in Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain (Ronald Pickup) to carry them into war, they go with the hawkish Churchill (Oldman). But many in his own party believe he is too anxious to fight, and too unwilling to try negotiating with the German leader. As Churchill spends a fateful month talking to his wife (Kristin Scott Thomas), to the typist who composes his speeches (Lily James), and to King George VI (Ben Mendelsohn) about what to do, he begins to truly understand the predicament Britain is in—without help from America, they’re seemingly no match for Hitler’s growing army.
If director Joe Wright (“Atonement”) doesn’t excite you, perhaps screenwriter Anthony McCarten’s past credits might. The writer of “The Theory of Everything” already has an Oscar nomination for writing, but if he gets a second it would come as no surprise. A film heavy on dialogue, “Darkest Hour” spends every minute of its jam-packed two hours accomplishing, essentially, one of two things: teaching you history or humanizing its subject—and sometimes both at once. If you seek out “Darkest Hour” for educational purposes, it may be useful to view it as a complement to this year’s “Dunkirk.” “Darkest Hour” gives us the behind-the-scenes of the mission, the voice on the other end of Kenneth Branagh’s walkie talkie.
When all of us are dead and gone, movies will survive. For generations of people looking to learn about the Second World War, movies like “Darkest Hour” will be an invaluable resource. For us, it is a beautiful, effective piece of cinema that wraps up a relatively weak year at the movies. Like “Lincoln,” and movies of that sort, “Darkest Hour” is informative, full of fancy jargon and realistic portrayals of real-life people. Unlike “Lincoln,” “Darkest Hour” is also rewatchable, boosted by a performance by Gary Oldman that is not only impressive but also enjoyable.