February 17, 2018

Blu-Ray Review: DARKEST HOUR

Starring Gary Oldman, Kristin Scott Thomas, Lily James, Ben Mendelsohn, Ronald Pickup, Stephen Dillane. Directed by Joe Wright. (2017/125 min).

This is not the role Gary Oldman was born to play. That would imply he's a natural choice to portray Winston Churchill. Oldman looks, sounds and moves nothing like the legendary British Prime Minister, which makes his performance all-the-more remarkable because he is completely convincing. Darkest Hour itself may not be Oscar-worthy, but Oldman sure as hell is. If he doesn't take home a Best Actor statue for this role, I doubt he ever will.

The film chronicles Churchill's first tumultuous month as Prime Minister of Great Britain, a time in history when Hitler is not his only adversary. Many of his peers in Parliament, led by 3rd Viscount Halifax (Stephen Dillane), don't want him as a wartime PM either, especially with their allies falling to the Germans and most of the British forces surrounded at Dunkirk. Halifax believes England's smartest course of action is to negotiate for peace, which Churchill is vehemently opposed to.

Much of what transpires is speculated and the film's most inspirational moment never actually happened, but Darkest Hour has no pretenses of being a biography or history lesson. Here, the focus is on making Churchill an engaging character, more than simply recreating the caricature we're all familiar with. While incorporating some of Churchill's notable mannerisms is obviously necessary, Oldman's performance goes far beyond a remarkable imitation. With considerable help from prosthetics, he looks and speaks uncannily like Churchill, but doesn't disappear entirely. There are key moments when the actor we know shines through, mostly in his eyes, giving the character emotional depth to go along with his gruff charm.

"Peace-out, Biotches!"
He's surrounded by a great cast, especially Lily Brown as Elizabeth, his beleaguered new secretary, and Kristin Scott Thomas as Clementine, Churchill's wife. Long-since resigned to taking a backseat to her husband's career, she remains a loving, devoted spouse, yet strong-willed enough to temper his frequent tirades. Churchill's relationships with these two women are interesting - and quite touching at times - but this is unquestionably Oldman's show the whole way. He dominates every scene he's in (which is most of 'em) and his performance keeps the viewer engaged during occasional stretches when the narrative gets a bit poky.

"You handle the passengers, Mr. Brown. I'll take care of the motorman."
Additionally, Darkest Hour is technically impressive, and not just the hair and make-up. Considering it's primarily a character drama and actor's showcase, the cinematography is striking. Similarly, there are several unexpected - though not gratuitous - CGI-created aerial shots that emphasize the enormity of, not only the impending threat of enemy invasion, but the responsibility Churchill carries almost solely on his shoulders.

Prior to Oscar night, Darkest Hour would make a great, epic double-bill with Dunkirk. The latter is a better film overall, but this one features one of the best performances from an actor who's long overdue for a statue. Since the Academy has always favored portrayals of historical figures - and Winston Churchill is infinitely more beloved than Sid Vicious or Lee Harvey Oswald - maybe he'll finally get one.

FEATURETTES: "Into the Darkest Hour"; "Gary Oldman: Becoming Churchill"
AUDIO COMMENTARY - By Director Joe Wright

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