Friday, 19 January 2018

"Darkest Hour" - A Review by Mark Barry of the 2017 Film Starring Gary Oldman...

"...Facing Fearful Odds..."
Darkest Hour - The 2017 Film (A Review)

It's Friday, 12 Jan 2018 in the UK and we've just come from a packed cinema - opening night for "Darkest Hour" - so this review covers the film with the BLU RAY details to follow when its released later in the year.

First up – "Darkest Hour" is your first port of call for movie magic in 2018. Having said that and although it moved the audience I was with in a big way - it's far from perfect as a film - especially at the outset. But when it settles down and works - Joe Wright's latest is masterful stuff – rammed to the gunnels with a huge array of British talent and brilliance. The entire cast is magnificent - seriously stepping up to the acting plate for what you feel they instinctively know is a prestigious project.

Given the press and attention lavished on it - you might also think the whole film is dominated by Gary Oldman's utterly extraordinary performance as Winston Churchill (Oscar nominated and surely his first statue in the bag – he's already taken the Golden Globe this week) – it’s not. What makes it work is a combo of three things actually. Oldman as lead of course giving his version of Churchill unbelievable humanity under all those superlative prosthetics. Second is stunning support parts from a whole array of quality actors - Ben Mendelsohn as the stuttering, smoking King George IV, Kirsten Scott-Thomas a Winnie's long-suffering but quietly supportive wife Clemmie and absolute career bests from Ronald Pickup as the beleaguered ex Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain (a committed pacifist who had seen what carnage war brought to the ordinary man in World War 1) and especially Stephen Dillane as the capitulating silver-tongued Viscount Halifax (he played Stannis Baratheon in Game Of Thrones) - a performance so strong that it almost threatens to take Oldman's thunder. Add in great writing from Anthony McCarten and steady Direction from Joe Wright ("Pride & Prejudice" and "Atonement") - and "Darkest Hour" had tears streaming down our collective cinematic kissers - and on more than one occasion. Even Lily James whose beauty always sees her getting slotted into the 'pretty girl' role - gets her best part too as Churchill's secretary and typist Miss Layton. During one harrowing scene – she sits stilled in pain - unable to type any further - staring down heartbroken at a letter dictated by her boss that will send thousands of men to their death at Calais in order to act as a diversion for the hundreds of thousands stranded on the French coast at Dunkirk (the entire British Army) as European countries and freedoms falls like dominoes to Nazi invasion and tyranny. "Darkest Hour" is full of moments like this. The staggering sacrifices that had to be made and who had the sheer brass to make such crushing decisions...

A half-hour in and as "Darkest Hour" begins to settle down it starts to become an emotional stealth film - the information flow making you realize the sheer gravity of what was happening and to whom - the worst and best sides of humanity making you wince and beam in equal measure. Winston giving the order for Operation Dynamo - the flotilla of small privately owned boats heading to Dunkirk as a nation rallies around 300,000 of its stranded troops (Dario Marianelli and his score finally delivering an emotional sweep the movie really needed). The fabulous dialogue intensity in the War Room when Winston needs to silence the wimps and the naysayers – a one-on-one with the King in a quite bedroom where the PM finally gets the support of someone that matters (a former doubter) – a conversation with President Roosevelt on the phone (a wonderfully detached David Strathairn). In fact I can’t help thinking that it would be a hard heart indeed that would remain unmoved when faced with this level of emotional onslaught.

Then there’s the huge history of it – the fate of the Western World resting on such odd shoulders. His obvious big heart living in tandem with a monumental ego (many felt his initial speeches to the House of Commons were simply grandstanding by a washed-up aristocrat) – his sheer will of personality - instilling self-belief into a nation - understanding that they needed heady strength and even belligerence instead of tact and diplomacy (Spillane's character makes sense every time he speaks but also creepily lacks spine in the face of adversity). There are moments in this film when your chest heaves with the weight of what Churchill had to endure - the American Government hiding behind laws and agreements as England and its inhabitants lay moments away from destruction by true evil (and Roosevelt knew it) – a small man helpless in an even smaller broom closet with the walls slowly closing in. The cabinet bickering and jockeying for position of 'least personal blame' when a nation's very soul hung in the balance - his past military failures in Gallipoli constantly thrown in his face as evidence of his unsuitability for the job of waging war. His copious alcohol consumption, wheezing on chomped cigars, slurred speech, fits of forgetfulness and cantankerous outbursts with staff while he cheerily gives the public V-signs as if all is a bed of roses (apparently the government actively avoided public speeches because Winston came across as a sozzled mumbler). It's all here. And in the end - and perhaps even because of his faults and blemishes – a nation – our freedom - saved by an old beaten-up man with seemingly limitless inner reserves of oratory and grit. And of course as it all comes down to ‘that’ speech which Oldman delivers with beautifully controlled power and finesse - more than a few bodies in our row of seats applauded and felt their chests swell with British pride (and I’m an Irishman).

So why the four-star review and not five? There are times - especially in the first half hour - when it all seems incredibly hammy in places - and you fear that all those glowing reviews must have been carefully placed hype. And it's not really helped either by a Dario Marianelli score that often feels more 'Carry On' than 'Keep Calm'. The jokes are good but can too often grate or worse - feel forced (what a jolly old curmudgeon he was). And a very staged 'Meeting The Ordinary People On The London Underground' scene where an embattled Winston takes solace from the common folk’s stoicism and courage feels like a Richard Curtis outtake complete with the token coloured passenger amazingly able to quote McCauley's poem "Horatio At The Bridge" verbatim and right on cinematic cue (its famous words title this review). And when it comes to the all-important and rousing speeches - did Churchill actually borrow from an American Journalist (William Simms not mentioned) for his penultimate speech of never surrendering made in the House of Commons post Dunkirk. And where's his Irish friend and lifelong advisor Tipperaryman Brendan Bracken who was a key player behind the scenes and some say also contributed to the famous monologues. But despite this - through it all is Oldman delivering a mighty acting performance that brings mammoth-sized pathos to the man – filling him with doubts – tenderness – hurt – even childishness – behavior the Nazis used as actual propaganda during the Blitz to come. Flaws or not – such is his investment in the part – Oldman has you glued - hanging on his every word and gesture. It's a career best and when you take into account the dark power and honesty in his astonishing Directorial debut about working-class alcoholism "Nil By Mouth" (a difficult watch worth the difficulty) – long overdue credit.

Given John Lithgow's truly extraordinary and humane turn as the great man in Season 1 of "The Crown" (a performance he should have won awards for) - Oldman delivers even more Winston - layer after layer of Churchill the man and the endless enigma. Beautifully done boys - flawed in places for sure - but a triumph nonetheless.

And come Tinseltown's Big Day - if Gary Oldman doesn’t win the Oscar for Male Lead in "Darkest Hour" then the UK Government can toss aside leaving the EU for the moment and concentrate on a land-based invasion of America. Given their present President's appalling leadership – hell they might even welcome it...
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