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edge staff writer


‘Darkest Hour’ shines brightly

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Playing a real person is always a tricky thing as an actor. Playing a real person of historical significance presents even more challenges.

Recreating an iconic figure in a historical drama requires the striking of a delicate balance. You have to capture the essence of the person (or what we perceive the essence of that person to be) while also being careful to not to allow the portrayal to devolve into caricature or mimicry.

Gary Oldman is tasked with finding just such a balance in “Darkest Hour,” where all he’s expected to do is breathe life into Winston Churchill. It’s the story of Churchill’s ascent to Prime Minister as Hitler marched across Europe during World War II and the entirety of the British Army is trapped on the shores of Dunkirk.

Winston Churchill is no one’s first choice for Prime Minister. The lack of confidence in his predecessor Neville Chamberlain (Ronald Pickup, “The Time of Their Lives”) has led to a need for someone who can potentially unite opposing factions. While his party wants Viscount Halifax (Stephen Dillane, “Mary Shelley”) – even King George (Ben Mendelsohn, TV’s “Bloodline”) prefers him – Churchill is the only choice that will satisfy (or dissatisfy) everyone equally.

Meanwhile, his wife Clemmie (Kristen Scott Thomas, “The Party”) is both completely supportive of and somewhat frightened of her husband’s new position and what it might mean for both him and the country. His new secretary Elizabeth Layton (Lily James, “Baby Driver”) is wildly intimidated by her new boss, but also steadfastly determined to serve him as best as she can.

Churchill has no choice but to attempt to navigate these very choppy political waters at home - it seems as though every other participant in the political machine either wishes to manipulate him or hopes that he fails – while also doing everything he can to try and find a solution to the situation in Europe. Most of his fellow politicians believe that solution to be found in peace talks with the Nazi regime and are willing to undermine Churchill to get to the negotiating table.

Winston Churchill has other ideas. Bold, unconventional ideas that could save the Empire – or quicken its demise. And he’s willing to do whatever it takes to implement them.

It’s interesting that we get another movie – and another excellent movie at that – that revolves around the evacuation at Dunkirk so closely following Christopher Nolan’s eponymous blockbuster about the same subject. Obviously, the two are very different – Nolan’s was a massive war movie, while Joe Wright has built “Darkest Hour” into much more of a character study – but it still warrants notice.

Wright has mastered a particular aesthetic – a sort of upscale griminess – that works wonderfully here, meshing nicely with Anthony McCarten’s screenplay (which offers up a spot-on narrative flow and even slightly fewer historical liberties taken than you often get with films of this sort). There’s a sense of desaturation throughout that lends itself to the general bleakness of the time, making the moments of brightness and levity stand out all the more when we ever so briefly glimpse them. Wright’s at his best when he’s finding ways to frame and focus on the man sitting at the center of the story, wringing every last bit of engagement from the remarkable performance.

Because make no mistake, Gary Oldman really is remarkable here. Churchill is a historical figure that is particularly tricky to play. In the audience’s perception, he’s practically a caricature already, and he’s also been portrayed numerous times (and recently to boot). Yet Oldman proves more than up to the challenge. His take on Churchill is subtle – well, as subtle as you can be when playing Winston Churchill. He balances bombast with nuance in a most remarkable manner and captures a physicality that is more impressive the more you watch. The makeup work is superb; Oldman simply disappears, melting away behind a face that is only nominally his own. It’s a performance that warrants every single award it is almost certainly going to accrue.

Oldman’s not alone on the screen. It’s a tour de force performance and a brilliant one, but it couldn’t have happened without some exceptional work from his co-stars. Pickup and Dillane are exquisite as Chamberlain and Halifax; the air of scheming self-interest that surrounds them is an effective counter to Churchill. James is quite good as Miss Layton, serving as a sort of audience surrogate for what it might be like to be in the room with a man such as Churchill. The always-excellent Thomas is, well, excellent as Clemmie, giving us a lovely look at the woman behind the man. And Mendelsohn proves quite arresting when on-screen – his King George is sharp and well-conceived.

“Darkest Hour” tells the story of a bleak time by way of one of history’s most notable men. It’s dramatically engaging and powerful in its own right, but it is Oldman’s outstanding performance that really pushes it over the top.

[5 out of 5] 

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