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Sure, Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk blew us away with its immersiveness. But if you prefer your WWII movies to have a little dialogue, some shapeliness and (is it too much to ask?) a bit of powerhouse acting, director Joe Wright’s tense profile of the rising prime minister Winston Churchill is the war film to beat. Wright, it’s worth remembering, has been on those gory French beaches before with 2007’s Atonement, capturing the whole of the British evacuation and its surrounding chaos in a legendary five-minute tracking shot. As if pulling a been-there-Dunkirk-that, he now shifts to the tense strategy sessions, bunker hand-wringing and political gamesmanship that fed into England’s finest hour. Darkest Hour is a film of verbal ammunition, and its calibre is high.
At first you won’t believe your eyes, seeing Gary Oldman—still, in some perverse way, the alive presence from Sid and Nancy—buried under what must be pounds of prosthetic facial architecture. (The radical makeup work is by artist Kazuhiro Tsuji.) But your mind quickly gets you where you need to be, as we watch Oldman’s Churchill roughing up our expectations: crouching on his bedroom floor to capture a wayward cat, downing a breakfast of Scotch and cigars and mixing it up with his cowed, dutiful secretary Elizabeth (Lily James). The performance is a marvel, not merely leaping over what could have been a stunt, but deepening into a soulful portrayal of wartime leadership, tinged with ego, doubt and the demands of a terrible moment.
Churchill’s showdown with Parliament is well-trod ground—even depicted recently on TV’s The Crown—but Darkest Hour manages to make it fresh, particularly in one civilization-defining phone conversation the prime minister has with the disembodied voice of President Franklin Roosevelt, with Oldman sweating out the request for military aid. Scenes between Churchill and an icy King George (Ben Mendelsohn, superb, even better than Colin Firth’s version in The King’s Speech) are the film’s heart, as royalty bends to support the man in the hot seat. There is one misstep: a fictionalized crowd-pleasing sequence set in the London Underground, in which Churchill appeals to the advice of everyday citizens—everyone’s too well spoken. But the movie survives it, leaving you with a dizzyingly emotional sense of history in the making. Where are today’s Churchills? Darkest Hour calls out to greatness; hopefully that call will be heard.
By Joshua Rothkopf