Sunday, 14 January 2018

#6 DARKEST HOUR


Starring Gary Oldman, Kristin Scott Thomas, Lily James, Stephen Dillane, Ronald Pickup and Ben Mendelsohn. Written by Anthony McCarten. Directed by Joe Wright. Budget $30 million. Running time 125 minutes. Cert PG.

Forewarned is four-armed as my old nana used to say. Although why anyone would want four arms is beyond me. Anyway, the warning. This film ISN'T about Churchill that wonderful nodding dog of the Churchill insurance ads who says 'Oh yes.' alot, but rather that famous fat politician with a passion for sticking his two fingers up and smoking great big cigars. He's the one who made that speech about fighting Germans on the beaches, probably over them leaving their towels on deck chairs or something I'm guessing.

It's 1940, Nazi Germany is sweeping across Europe, invading Belgium and the Netherlands and France hangs in the balance. In response to overwhelming pressure Nevill Chamberlain resigns as Prime Minister and Winston Churchill (Gary Oldman) is chosen as his successor, although apparently the Tory hierarchy would have preferred Lord Halifax since he championed trying to negotiate a peaceful resolution with Heir Hitler rather than the war option that Churchill wanted. The film follows the first month of Churchill's reign as he struggles to unite parliament behind his rule, secure the rescue of the 300,000 British soldiers trapped on the beaches of Dunkirk and rally the nation behind him. The film follows Churchill, his new young sectary Elizabeth Layton (Lily James) and his wife Clemitine (Kristen Scott Thomas) as this larger than life figure struggles to juggle the many problems of this premiership but also the terrible pressures of the war.

As a film this is dry stuff, with little room for extra drama or excitement as it follows the well documented events of May 1940. Indeed the only truly made up scene, near the end of the movie, is the only bum note as it rings so utterly untrue and yet it's obvious that it's there to give Churchill the visual inspiration he needs to make his legendary 'Fight them on the Beaches' speech.

It's been three years since Joe Wright's last movie Pan – a critically panned and over-egged mistep – and this feels like a welcome return to form for Wright who has an impressive back catalogue including Atonement and Hanna. This film features several visually stunning shots, such as one which sees a  long tracking shot across a cratered battlefields that slowly morphs into a closeup of a dead-man's face lying on the same battlefield. And there are also several shots where he isolates Churchill in a box framed in a jet-black background to emphasis his isolation. The decision to film in real locations in turn provides genuine background sounds, like creaking floorboards, that all help to create a sense of reality.

This is a film that sinks or swims on the performances of its talented cast and everybody involved from Ben Mendelsohn as King George, to Kristen Scott Thompson as Churchill's adoring wife and Lily James as his young new secretary who we meet on her first day on the job is excellent. Although it's Gary Oldman who shines and proves in this single performance to be the best actor of his generation! Oldman is just staggering losing himself almost entirely in role to such an extent that for long portions of the film you simply forget you're watching Oldman and just assume you're watching Churchill in a film-on-the-wall documentary. A huge contributing factor for this success is the make-up, which is the work of pure genius and literally seamless.

Sadly, the film itself is, truth be told, a tad bland and oddly flat. Athough that's hardly surprising since the plot is propelled by political machinations, intellectual conversations and well-written dialogue rather than action or overt drama. In fact, my favourite line is said in response to a question asking what Churchill has done? "He's mobilised the English language." This is also one of those rare films which doesn't have a three-act structure and as such leaves you unable to work out how much longer the film is on for, so when the end arrives it comes unannounced and somewhat surprisingly, and leaves you wondering how the war will turn out. Perhaps they're saving that for the sequel?

Worth seeing for Oldman alone, his performance is fantastic, but stay for the history lesson, which never loses its power to fascinate.

8/10

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