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Thursday, February 8, 2018

OSCARS 2018: Darkest Hour (2017)

So much of Oscar Season is driven by narratives. The critical body makes up their mind about something early in the season and hold on to it through the weeks leading up to the ceremony. Sometimes these predictions come to pass, sometimes they don't. Last year, the narrative was that “La La Land” was the unstoppable Best Picture winner. Two years ago, it was that Leo DiCaprio was finally going to win an Oscar for “The Revenant.” This year, an award season with few clear consensuses, the prevailing narrative is that Gary Oldman is going to win a statue for “Darkest Hour.” (The definite article was left off presumably to avoid confusion with that sci-fi movie from 2011 absolutely no one saw.) Will this come true, like Leo's win, or will things take an unexpected swerve, as it did with “La La Land?” Well, I guess we'll find out in a few weeks.

“Darkest Hour” is the token historical biopic among this year's Best Picture nominees. The latest from Joe Wright concerns Winston Churchill. It begins in 1940, when British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain is forced to resigned, following Nazi Germany pushing the rest of the continent into war. Churchill is chosen to assume the role of P.M. It's not an easy choice. Churchill faces opposition from all sides. As he refuses to consider peace talks with the encroaching German and Italian forces, he faces the possibility of resignation himself. As the war grows more heated, and England itself becomes a target, Churchill finds himself questioning his own choices.

Like many Oscar bait-y biopics, “Darkest Hour” is essentially a delivery system for an impressive lead performance. Yes, Gary Oldman acts his ass off as Winston Churchill. He very much disappears into the role and is totally unrecognizable. The strong make-up transforms him totally into the historical Churchill. Oldman's acting both humanizes the Prime Minister while playing up his mythic standing. We see Churchill yell at his secretary, bicker with his wife, drinks too much, wears a robe a lot, and stumbles out of the bath. Oldman gives Churchill a nasal, reedy voice, in contrast to the blustery, bulldog accent Churchill is usually depicted with. For these humanizing elements, Oldman also gets moments of huge emotion. Churchill's refusal to concede the possibility of defeat to the Nazis, his emotions boiling over in a meeting with his cabinet, is stirring and emotional. So are the expected scenes where he makes big speeches to British Parliament. I have little doubt Oldman will win his Oscar. This is exactly the kind of performance the Academy loves. It's pretty good, I'll admit.

Surprisingly, “Darkest Hour” is more of a chamber drama than a proper war movie. I suppose the title led me to believe that the film would deal primarily with the Blitz, when the British Isles were bombarded by bombs by the German air force. Instead, “Darkest Hour” primarily takes places before this time. In an interesting coincidence, the film covers much of the same historical period as “Dunkirk” but from the other shore. In both films, the German forces are kept primarily off-screen, a threat that is spoken of more than seen. “Darkest Hour” is really about Churchill's refusal to back down from his opponents. What would normally be a stubborn politician refusing to budge is put in a very different context here. “Darkest Hour” shows Churchill standing up against the evil of Hitler and the Nazis. He's shown as a populist hero, riding a subway train and changing Parliament's opinion by speaking for the common person. Someone better attuned to British history would have a clearer opinion on this but, to me, it plays as pretty idealized.

“Darkest Hour” is the latest from Joe Wright. Aside from outlinears like “Hanna” and “Pan,” historical dramas like this are Wright's bread-and-butter. His visual approach is sweeping and smooth as fuck. Corresponding to the title, he often shoots his cast members in dark rooms. There's a painterly quality to these images, such as when Churchill, as the newly minted Prime Minister, first meets with King George. He employs low, natural-seeming lighting. Wright also throws in some really grand motions. As German planes fly overhead, his camera cranes higher above the British countryside. At one point, we pan from Churchill's inner chambers to an exploding battle field to the face of a dead soldier. The director also flashes large dates on-screen throughout. This kind of approach is catnip for me, flashy but not overdone. This is a really good looking movie.

“Darkest Hour” does not truly rise above the cliches and common tropes of award season, prestige biopics. It's pretty much exactly the kind of movie you expect it to be. However, within those parameters, the movie does fairly well. Oldman's performance is excellent, Wright's direction is strong. Dario Marianelli's score is also very good, full of strong themes and rumbling atmosphere. (Marianelli's work didn't earn a nomination, probably because of how fierce competition was in that category this year.) In an exciting Oscar season, this is the kind of film that fades into the background a bit but I still managed to appreciate it some. [7/10]

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