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Movie Review: Gary Oldman Disappears Into Winston Churchill’s ‘Darkest Hour,’ and the Result is Fascinating But a Little Too Stiff

CREDIT: Jack English/Focus Features

Starring: Gary Oldman, Lily James, Kristin Scott Thomas, Ben Mendelsohn, Ronald Pickup, Stephen Dillane

Director: Joe Wright

Running Time: 125 Minutes

Rating: PG-13 for War Talk and a Dash of Naughty British Humor

Release Date: November 22, 2017 (Limited)

How do you solve a problem like a mumbling lead character? You could make him not mumble, but of course that’s not really an option when he is a real person whose mushmouth is historically accepted fact. So then you could make the difficulty to understand him part of the point, but could that really work when he is known for inspiring his country to plow ahead in a time of crisis? Darkest Hour certainly does not take it easy on Winston Churchill (an exceptionally unrecognizable Gary Oldman). Nobody in Parliament thinks he is up to the task, but somehow he manages to fire up the British citizenry for the war effort without having to tamp down his prodigious appetites. Maybe the men and women on the street appreciate all the bluster thickly surrounding all of his words.

Darkest Hour is the third in 2017’s (accidental) trilogy about Britain’s early days in World War II. First came Their Finest, depicting the production of a propaganda film about the evacuation of Dunkirk. Then of course there was Dunkirk, about the evacuation itself. And now Darkest Hour presents the political maneuverings surrounding these same events.

With Germany holding the upper hand in 1940, the crux of Darkest Hour’s conflict is Churchill wrestling with the decision of whether to negotiate with Hitler or to rally the nation to keep fighting. This is a more complicated narrative than the simplistic version many of us have been told, in which the concessionist Neville Chamberlain (Ronald Pickup) gave way to the bulldog Churchill. In fact, Chamberlain’s decision to step down may have had more to deep with his creeping cancer. And I am no expert on British government, but Darkest Hour makes it clear that the executive forces on Chamberlain’s side were very much still present when Churchill ascended.

As a character study, this film is best regarded as a portrait of Churchill awkwardly slipping into the suit of the prime ministership. With his bulbous shape, and that physicality serving as a shield over his lack of self-confidence, so much of Churchill’s life is ill-fitting. Darkest Hour is similarly aesthetically unpleasant, in ways that I imagine were both intentional and unintentional. It cannot be helped that England is often a dreary country, and it is fair that that should be emphasized. Also reasonable but frustrating is the decision is to set many of the scenes in the deepest and most cramped bureaucratic interiors.

So it is quite a relief when Churchill and Darkest Hour trek out into the world, turning to the opinions of everyday Londoners riding the tube. The message here, at least as far I take it, is not so much that the commoners won the war, as much as it is that breaking out of your constrictions is always a good idea, whether you are a prime minister, an Oscar-angling motion picture, or anyone or anything else. So there is plenty of inspiration to draw from this film, though its shape may feel a little stitched-together.

Darkest Hour is Recommended If You Like: Winston Churchill mania (it’s hot right now), The King’s Speech, Chugging a Scotch and Puffing on a Cigar While You Watch Movies

Grade: 2.75 out 5 Litanies of Catastrophe

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