Darkest Hour marks the trifecta… Dunkirk bingo if you will. 2017 saw three films describing the actions and involvement of British forces at Dunkirk. These films all felt drastically different, beginning with Their Finest in April, then Christopher Nolan’s sweeping epic Dunkirk this summer, and finally Darkest Hour over the holidays. How does the critically acclaimed, awards fare stand-up to the two equally strong films from earlier this year? 

Darkest Hour follows the panic in Britan during the early days of World War II as Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain (Ronald Pickup) falls out of favor. The politician quickly finds himself replaced by the firey, but complicated Winston Churchill (Gary Oldman). The now legendary leader finds the country in a horrendously complicated political situation as the government struggles to decide where it stands with tensions escalating in Europe. 

To begin, the awards season gossip surrounding Darkest Hour primarily revolves around the film’s star Gary Oldman. The gossip is not simply hype. The actor most assuredly puts forward an awards calibre performance. The make-up design is absolutely amazing and absolutely transforms Oldman into Churchill. However, Oldman completes the transformation through his complicated and layered performance. 

Portrayals of Winston Churchill in popular cultural tend to be very similar. The Prime Minister is often viewed as a very stoic and noble figure. At times, he seems almost cartoonish in his infallibility. However, Oldman takes a different perspective on the iconic politician. In his hands, Churchill is realistic. He’s insecure. He’s uncertain of himself, especially in relation to the situation he finds himself caught up in. This take is unique, and feels like a breath of fresh air. It seems definitely worthy applause that Oldman managed to take a well worn character like Winston Churchill and lay new groundwork. Definitely keep an eye out for Gary Oldman come Oscar time. 

Ben Mendelsohn also steps up in his portrayal of the equally popular King George VI. The part is a relatively small, but still important one in those tense early days of the war. The talented Mendelsohn puts forward a stunning, but subtle performance. In fact, it feels a shame the film uses his character so sparingly, and we see so little of the talented actor. This reviewer would definitely be behind a remake of The King’s Speech starring Mr. Mendelsohn… make note of that Hollywood! 

Outside of those performances, the construction of the other characters pales in comparison. Lily James feels wasted as Elizabeth Layton. She feels like a fairly generic secretary, existing only to serve as an audience entry to the narrative. James brings her charisma and likability to the role, but it is so paper-thin that adding any layers to the character is a tall order. Unfortunately, the film would lose very little if the character wasn’t in the film.

Probably the biggest complaints with the film is its pacing. Darkest Hour clocks in at just over two hours, and at this length feels a bit too long. Those who dislike films with a lot of talking should probably avoid the movie. While it is a war picture, all the fighting remains across the channel in France. The script is very dialogue heavy, and this does not play well with all audiences. 

Finally, the film comes from director Joe Wright. Over the course of his career, the filmmaker showed a definite eye for period pieces. He’s perhaps best known for his work on his 2005 version of Pride and Prejudice starring Keira Knightley. He also helmed the critically acclaimed Atonement in 2007 and Anna Karenina in 2012. The director has a very detailed, well honed visual aesthetic. Darkest Hour is a stellar example of Wright’s cinematic styling. He is a great choice to direct the film, and Darkest Hour looks absolutely stunning as a result. 

Surprisingly, Dunkirk proved to be a popular topic on movie screens during 2017, and Darkest Hour completes the trifecta. The highly polished period piece will most certainly be a contender come Oscar time, especially Gary Oldman’s powerhouse performance as British Prime Minister Winston Churchill. The film’s tone and pacing is tricky, and as a result this movie isn’t for everyone. Darkest Hour is slow and dialogue heavy. If this isn’t for you, avoid this movie. However, fans of period pieces and typical awards season faire should most certainly gobble this one up. Not only is the film absolutely beautiful, but the performances are stunning as well. 

Darkest Hour is playing at theatres around the country now. 

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Kimberly Pierce

A film nerd from my earliest years watching Abbott and Costello, that eventually translated to a Master’s Degree in Film History. I spend my time working on my fiction projects in all their forms, as well as covering film and television.
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