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"DARKEST HOUR"
(2017) (Gary Oldman, Lily James) (PG-13)


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QUICK TAKE:
Drama: The Prime Minister of England must contend with the growing threat facing his country -- and the debate about how to proceed -- as German's invasion of Europe heads their way.
PLOT:
It's 1940 and Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain (RONALD PICKUP) has lost the confidence of much of the government, especially in light of Hitler blitzkrieging his way through Western Europe. While Chamberlain's allies would like Viscount Halifax (STEPHEN DILLANE) to take the spot -- especially with confidence from close friend King George VI (BEN MENDELSOHN) -- that politician isn't interested in the job. All of which means the most likely choice -- as he'd be the only man accepted by the opposition party -- falls to Winston Churchill (GARY OLDMAN) despite those in his own party not particularly liking him due to his checkered past, including the British defeat at Gallipoli years before.

Nonetheless, and needing new blood in the seat, King George makes the offer and Winston becomes the country's newest Prime Minister, both to the joy and worry of his wife, Clementine Churchill (KRISTIN SCOTT THOMAS), who's had to play second fiddle, along with their kids, to his public service career. With a new secretary, Elizabeth Layton (LILY JAMES), at his beck and call, Winston immediately steps into action, focusing on what to do regarding Hitler and other ally countries falling to Germany.

While dealing with others such as Halifax and Chamberlain who want peace rather than war, Winston tries to come up with a winning solution, all while contending with having several hundred thousand British soldiers cornered on the beaches of Dunkirk with things not looking good for them or Britain in general.

OUR TAKE: 7 out of 10
I've only taken a few acting classes in my life (long, long ago in college) and thus don't really know what makes such performers tick. But I imagine that portraying real-life people on the stage, TV or film is likely simultaneously exciting and terrifying.

It's the former because one has the opportunity to show off their acting chops (and in the process maybe rack up an award nomination/win or two). And the latter is obviously directly related in that if you get the portrayal wrong -- which is easy if the character in question is well-known and/or still relevant -- such a failure only stands out that much more.

Some performers go through their entire careers playing only fictitious characters, while others revel in the chance to portray historical figures on occasion. One such performer is Gary Oldman who mostly stays on the make-believe side (such as in the "Harry Potter" series), but sometimes delves into historical figures such as he did playing punk rocker Sid Vicious, Lee Harvey Oswald and Ludwig van Beethoven.

Now he adds Winston Churchill to that list with his terrific performance in "Darkest Hour" where thanks to stellar acting on his part, great makeup and a superb screenplay, the 59-year-old actor should pick up just his second Best Acting Oscar nomination (the other being for 2012's "Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy").

The title refers to the time in British history when it appeared quite likely that Germany's WWII military would continue sweeping through Western Europe, cross the English channel and end up flying the Nazi flag over Buckingham Palace. And with most politicians firmly believing some sort of peace treaty with Hitler was the only logical way out of the mess, Churchill -- mostly acting alone and with few political allies despite replacing Neville Chamberlain as the new Prime Minister -- remained steadfast in his resolve not to bow down or be defeated by tyranny.

The film -- creatively directed by Joe Wright from a screenplay by Anthony McCarten -- takes place in the middle of 1940 from the time Churchill is being considered for the position up through the rescue efforts related to several hundred thousand British forces cornered on the shores of Dunkirk, France with the German military headed their way.

That will obviously bring up thoughts -- at least for those who saw it earlier this year -- of Christopher Nolan's superb war flick, "Dunkirk." And while that's usually a bad thing (being distracted by memories of another related film), that predecessor actually heightens what happens here as viewers who experienced that will be able to place that material in context with what occurs here behind the scenes.

And it certainly doesn't hurt that this pic is quite good as a standalone project. The screenplay is excellent, mixing in some of Churchill's real-life speeches with (presumably) imagined dialogue that showcases the man's resolve, thought processes and occasionally delves into his depression. There are some great scenes between him and those high up (Ben Mendelsohn playing King George) and otherwise commonplace (Lily James as his secretary who's at first shell-shocked by him verbally attacking her but ultimately becomes something of his personal confidant).

While a few of the brief war scenes seem to indicate this offering didn't have the sort of mega budget Nolan had at his disposal, they don't distract from what's ultimately a moving, engaging and captivating character study of a man truly stuck in that titular time frame and dilemma. With Oldman knocking the performance out of the park with ease, "Darkest Hour" should get some award love come nomination time. It rates as a 7 out of 10.




Reviewed December 1, 2017 / Posted December 8, 2017


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