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‘Darkest Hour’ Review

| Tuesday, January 30, 2018

Lauren Weldon

In my previous reviews of historical, non-fiction films, I have discussed the difficulty of adapting these works for the screen. Historical, non-fiction films, if the viewer is knowledgeable, do not have surprises, do not have particularly exciting character development and have a pressing obligation to be historically accurate — especially if they retell well-known historical events.

There are three ways, however, that films of this nature can avoid these restraints and, in doing so, manufacture their own surprise and excitement. They can take on the genre of historical fiction (“Saving Private Ryan,” “Inglorious Basterds”); they can pick a rather unknown, specific historical topic to cover (“The King’s Speech,” “Schindler’s List”); or they can be so well done that the films themselves at times completely avoid fictionalizing (“Lincoln”). The recently released “Darkest Hour” fabricates its own delight and excitement through the latter — chiefly through the performances of Gary Oldman, Lily James and Kristin Scott Thomas.

The film centers around the life of Winston Churchill (Gary Oldman) during the period immediately before Great Britain’s entrance into World War II. It chronicles his proceedings in Parliament as he ascends to the position of Prime Minister, his life at home with his wife Clementine (Kristin Scott Thomas), his decisions in the war room and his symbiotic relationship with his secretary (Lily James). The period during which the film takes place covers only a few months ending with Britain’s entry into World War II, and in doing so it is able to better delve into historical events and character development than a biopic covering the entirety of the war.

As historically concise and accurate as “Darkest Hour” is, Gary Oldman’s ultra-realistic depiction of Winston Churchill is the film’s most enticing draw.

The film and Oldman’s performance function similarly to the way these aspects function in Steven Spielberg’s “Lincoln.” In “Lincoln,” from the outset, the audience knows that Abraham Lincoln will be assassinated at Ford’s Theater, just as in “Darkest Hour” the audience knows that Churchill will assume the position of Prime Minister and Great Britain will join World War II. Audiences know exactly what to expect and what will happen, so, instead of aiming for surprise, both of the films aim for incredible historical accuracy and compelling depiction of characters. Daniel Day-Lewis as Abraham Lincoln and Gary Oldman as Winston Churchill bring the films to life and give them excitement not born of human reflex, but rather excitement born of human intrigue. Seeing an actor who depicts Winston Churchill so accurately that the fictional element of the film fades out of mind is just as exciting as an impending crisis, only in a different manner.

The way in which the film approaches Churchill, however, makes Oldman’s performance all the more impressive. Instead of solely focusing on Churchill the statesman, the film also focuses on Churchill the husband, the Londoner and the legislative maverick. It doesn’t glorify him but portrays him exactly as he was in the 1930s and 1940s British political sphere: divisive. Oldman, underneath pounds of makeup, captures all the many facets of Churchill brilliantly. Oldman is composed, irritable, caring and war-oriented in all of the ways that Churchill was. His depiction isn’t one where you struggle to find the Churchill in Oldman, but rather one where you struggle to find the Oldman in Churchill — an attribute few actors can claim to have mastered in any of their characters.

“Darkest Hour” isn’t a momentously ambitious film. It doesn’t create something new, it doesn’t talk about a subject that film has never touched on and it doesn’t necessarily leave you begging for more. Its aim, however, is not to accomplish any of those things. The aim of “Darkest Hour” is to depict something truthfully and honestly. It fulfills this aim phenomenally and perhaps better than any other film this year.

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