Review: Darkest Hour (2018)

Gary Oldman offers up a performance to remember in this accomplished take on a tense moment in history.

As awards season gets underway it is that time of year where Drama reigns, historical figures are brought to big screens and Meryl Streep gets prepared to embarrassingly look away when the host makes a crack or two about her being nominated yearly because she is so brilliant. It seems that with every awards season you get a lot of fresh and emerging talents trying to break into the Hollywood hierarchy but every so often you get some long overdue recognition of a great (see Michael Keaton for Birdman). Throughout history many superb actors never received big awards – especially Oscars – and some were not even nominated…until 2012 this was the case for the excellent Gary Oldman. Known for his range and commitment, Oldman has missed out on Oscar acknowledgement for years until being nominated for Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy. Little gold awards, of course, ultimately means nothing next to the power of a fantastic performance, that is what really matters and in Darkest Hour Oldman delivers one of his very best.

Looking at a Britain in panic as Adolf Hitler’s forces were progressing across Europe, this film sees how the political establishment was thrown into disarray and the appointment of new Prime Minister Winston Churchill was a desperate move at a time of weighing up options and preparing for whatever may come. As time has progressed since, we now live in an age where our history is constantly coming back to haunt or educate us and where past figures are now far more dissected than they once were. As such Darkest Hour is a film that will immediately be scrutinised for accuracy and its portrayal of a man idolised by many as an unflinching figure of defiance and criticised by others for his political/character flaws. Director Joe Wright’s (Atonement) film is one that seeks a kind of balance, not ignoring what a difficult and assertive personality its subject was but at the same time represents him as a beacon of resilience and hope at a difficult time.

Darkest Hour is a compelling piece of filmmaking, one that captures the unsureness of the time and the pressures surrounding the people and powers that be. The aerial view shots and intense close-ups create intensity and the rousing, often fiery, dialogue works wonders in creating a procession of powerful moments. There is also a surprising sprinkling of comedy (see a scene responding to that iconic photo). However some serious liberties are taken with aspects of the history and people may well be divided on one particular sequence of historical rewriting for narrative ease. It is a scene that is inspired by very vague details of the central figure’s life and while superbly acted it could raise a few eyebrows.

Though for all the film’s successes, this is maybe destined to go down as an awards season contender recalled principally for Oldman’s finest hour in one of history’s darkest. He simply astonishes, in what is the best bringing to life of a political figure since Daniel Day-Lewis’ turn as Abraham Lincoln in Steven Spielberg’s acclaimed Lincoln. Oldman sinks into the character thanks to his impressive chameleonship skill and some outstanding awards assured make-up work by Kazuhiro Tsuji and (be it smoking $20,000 of cigars or his incredibly observed verbal facets of Churchill) his dedication to the role is huge. He becomes the part and one of the greatest compliments I can pay his turn is that, had Christopher Nolan’s seminal Dunkirk ever cut away from the beaches and battles, some of Darkest Hour’s bunker room war discussions and Oldman’s blistering impassioned monologues would have felt right at home in Nolan’s feature.

The supporting performances are unshockingly given less focus than the title role but there are some darn good turns by Ben Mendelsohn as King George VI, Kristen Scott Thomas as Clementine Churchill and Lily James as Winton’s personal secretary Elizabeth. Each have some fantastic bits, though it is a shame that some of them were not given a bit more room to flex their talents even wider, James’ part especially felt like more could have been done. That said the film is probably the right length as it is and more may have admittedly overstretched it.

The film may have a few flaws but this is not just another case of a great lead performance in a wonky biopic (W., The Iron Lady, J. Edgar), Wright puts this unpredictable and uneasily answered time under a microscope (almost literally at points) and it creates an uncompromisingly gripping collection of moments, with Gary Oldman’s performance being at the core of the picture.

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