“Darkest Hour” Movie Review

     Gary Oldman gives what may just be the best performance of his long and decorated career as British Prime Minister Winston Churchill in the exposition laden nail biter “Darkest Hour”, a film chronicling the decision made by England to fight Hitler in World War 2, rather than attempt to negotiate peace and face an uncertain future.  Directed by Joe Wright (“Hanna”), the film, written by screenwriter Anthony McCarten (“The Theory of Everything”), could easily one day be seen on a Broadway stage, given the story takes place mostly within the cigar smoke filled rooms of British Parliament, Churchill’s residence, and the bowels of the British Capitol’s war room.  This is easily the kind of story that could’ve been lost amongst the many historical biopics produced each year, but the power and ferocity of Oldman’s performance instead elevates the material to the heights of being one of the best films of 2017.

     There will be inevitable comparisons to Christopher Nolan’s masterful “Dunkirk”, a film that will also be a fellow awards contender and likely Best Picture nominee.  And whereas Nolan’s film is a powerful visual spectacle depicting the anxiety experienced by over 300,000 British and Allied troops surrounded by the Germans with no mode of escape, if you combined Nolan’s film with certain scenes in “Darkest Hour”, you would get a unique perspective as to how the politicians back home were handling the crisis, as well as the ultimate decision by Churchill to commission over 800 civilian boats in order to attempt the most daring rescue in history.  In essence, the two films play together in much the same way Clint Eastwood’s “Flags of our Fathers” (2006) and “Letters from Iwo Jima” (2006) did in giving opposing perspectives on the Battle of Iwo Jima with the edge here going to the current crop given the tour de force performance by Oldman.

     Wright’s film begins initially with a British Parliament in shambles, as a vote of no confidence removes the then current Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain (Ronald Pickup) whose conservative party turned against him in the midst of Hitler’s steamrolling of Europe.  With England now within the sights of the German army, King George VI (Ben Mendelsohn) confides with his inner circle and reluctantly selects Winston Churchill (Gary Oldman) is the next Prime Minister, a curmudgeonly old man who wakes each morning to cigars and whisky as he begins his day within the snake pit that is British politics.  His wife, Clemmie (Kristin Scott Thomas), may be the only person who can wrangle in his cantankerous disposition, but there seems to be no luck in that accord for others around him.  Early in the film, he is introduced to his new personal secretary, Elizabeth Layton (Lilly James), who is initially rattled by his impatience and leaves his room crying.

     Eventually, Layton becomes a force of reason as Churchill’s speech writer and contributes greatly to the quotable words Churchill has become famous for.  In addition to dealing with the politics of the bitterly divided parties who push for varied solutions to the pending crisis, Churchill must also overcome the limitations to his own personality, something Oldman expertly conveys through meticulously studied mannerisms and dialogue delivery.  Over the course of two hours, we see a man who transforms himself for both the public good, as well as his fiery belief in defending his country at all costs.  At no time is this tested more than when he is briefed  on the situation occurring on Dunkirk beach just across the English Channel.

     At the time, the United States was not part of the Allied Forces fighting Hitler’s Germany.  As Hitler had successfully overthrown most of Europe, troops mainly comprised of England’s entire army had been defeated and pushed back to Dunkirk, cornering them with water at their backs and a superior army moving towards them, and no transportation to England.  In a daring move, Churchill makes the unpopular decision of ordering the last remaining English army unit not trapped at Dunkirk to engage the Germans from the south in order to buy time for a plan to be put in place to somehow extract the troops at Dunkirk.  This proves to be a painstaking decision given his advisors believe the move is nothing more than a suicide mission.  It’s not long before some of those advisors, led by Viscount Halifax (Stephen Dillane), a confidant of the King, begin to work against Churchill and seek to give him the same fate as his predecessor.

     Wright doesn't focus on the action going on outside of the British Capitol, instead moving his camera about the dark hallways and dimly lit rooms where the most crucial debates take place and the ultimate decisions are made.  The film plays like the “A Few Good Men” of war films, concentrating on the ferocity of the conversations with both those in power, as well as those who support them, in an effort to come up with a viable solution that will save England from certain doom.  There are scenes, particularly in the third act, where you can cut the tension with a knife.  Perhaps this is because Nolan has already shown us earlier this year what the situation was in Dunkirk and just how high the stakes were, leaving Oldman to portray the man who concocted the plan that saved hundreds of thousands of lives, thus becoming a notable turning point in World War 2.  GRADE: A