The Hippo


May 26, 2020








Darkest Hour (PG-13)

Darkest Hour (PG-13)
Film Reviews by Amy Diaz

By Amy Diaz

The U.K. faces military disaster and possible invasion by the swift-moving German forces in late May 1940, just as Winston Churchill becomes prime minister, in Darkest Hour.

As Germany quickly takes chunks of Western Europe and pushes into France, Neville Chamberlain (Ronald Pickup) is forced to resign in favor of Churchill (Gary Oldman), a compromise candidate nobody actually seems to want or have confidence in. Not his own party, of which Chamberlain still seems to be the head, and not King George VI (Ben Mendelsohn), who tells Churchill he is somewhat afraid of him during one of their regular meetings. Some, including Chamberlain, in Churchill’s party want to consider peace talks with Hitler, especially as the Germans push through France and most of the British army — some 300,000 men — is left stranded and surrounded at Dunkirk. 
Churchill, who makes the unpopular decision to essentially sacrifice a garrison of men at Calais to hold the Germans back, believes a long shot evacuation of Dunkirk and preparation for a defensive war with Germany is the only way to go. But as the days pass and the news from France gets worse he starts to wonder if steely resolve, and the potential destruction of the home island that could come with it, is really the best option.
The movie basically only covers about a month of time, from early May to the “we shall fight on the beaches” speech delivered in early June. The movie essentially ends with this speech — and when you have writing as naturally cinematic as “until, in God’s good time, the New World, with all its power and might, steps forth to the rescue and the liberation of the old” why wouldn’t you use it? (The exact wording of that quote I found on Because Dunkirk also ends with this speech, it gives these movies a “two sides of one coin” feel. That movie gave us a look at this moment in history on the battlefield; this movie gives us the moment in the war room. The details of this, Churchill’s thought processes and the political machinations required to get the government to his desired war footing, are interesting in an Aaron Sorkin kind of way (though not in the Sorkin style; some of that Sorkin energy would have been appreciated here). The movie is at its best when it focuses on this, whether with Churchill at the center or with the Chamberlain-centric critics. 
Less successful is an unnecessary subplot involving his secretary, Elizabeth Layton (Lily James), that slows the movie down. I get the sense that she is some degree of an audience surrogate, both to the personality of Churchill and to the stakes of the military actions we’re hearing about. But this particular slice of British history doesn’t need that kind of gilding, I think, even for Americans (or especially for Americans; see the quote above).
Of course, all of these quibbles feel secondary to Oldman’s Churchill, which is as much the movie as every other part of it combined. Before I knew anything about the movie, I read about how this is the performance to beat in this year’s best actor Oscar race. In addition to its checking the traditional Oscar performance boxes (actor becomes the subject, complicated hero, weighty historical drama — check, check, check), Oldman is truly magnetic here. He is able to present a person, not a Hall of Presidents wax figure, and give that person layers and complexity and a public and private side. We see the private side in scenes with his wife, Clementine (Kristin Scott Thomas), who is also doing a lot even in her more limited role. A cleaner, sleeker movie might have sliced out the Layton character and kept the quiet Churchill to these scenes, where he shows doubt and uncertainty.
The strength of Oldman’s performance pulls the movie through its weaker moments and even makes a kind of ridiculous scene near the end of the movie (I won’t spoil it, but you’ll know it when you see it) not just forgivable but fun in spite of itself. A-
Rated PG-13 for some thematic material. Directed by Joe Wright with a screenplay by Anthony McCarten, Darkest Hour is two hours and five minutes long and distributed by Focus Features.

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