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November 01, 2017

Denver Film Festival - Darkest Hour


Joe Wright - 2017
Focus Features

In the past few months, there have been two British films with overlapping portrayals of historical events. Dunkirk covers a very short period, while Darkest Hour is of the months leading up to the evacuation of British troops in France, and shortly after, from the point of view of Prime Minister Winston Churchill. Too some extent, one might describe the films as complimentary, each illuminating aspects of the other. There may be some coincidence in having these two films out at this time. I am also thinking that the two films may be responses to more recent British history, especially Brexit, and that the films are an examination of British identity with the rest of Europe.

I also had to be reminded, in checking out Joe Wright's filmography, that Dunkirk also figured in his earlier film, Atonement. There's more of the battle in Atonement than in Darkest Hour, which mostly shows the civilian fleet of yachts that served to rescue the troops. The most moving moment in the latter film is of Churchill and his secretary alone in the tiny underground office where she works. Churchill notices a photograph, which is revealed to be that of the secretary's brother. The exchange of looks between Gary Oldman as Churchill and Lily James as the secretary is all that needs to be said about the human toll of war.

Oldman is barely recognizable under the padding and make-up, and it's easy to see why the advance word is centered on his performance. For me, the one to watch is Kristen Scott Thomas as Clementine Churchill, who keeps her head while her husband rages, reminding the often frustrated statesman of his better qualities. Maybe it's the wit of Anthony McCarten's dialogue, but the combination of slyness and warmth enable Scott Thomas to steal the film from the bravura Oldman.

Wright, for his part, loves his tracking shots and overhead shots with what could only be described as God's point of view, with the camera moving further up and away, looking straight down at the activity below. Yet the best moments of Darkest Hour are not those of pyrotechnics, but are more subtle, such as the above described scene of Churchill and his secretary, or when Churchill meets King George to be appointed Prime Minister. In a full shot of the two men, virtually in silhouette, Churchill, as in protocol, kisses, the king's right hand. In that same shot, we see the king taking that same hand behind his back for a quick wipe. Much of the film takes place in shadows and dimly lit environments, almost suggesting that Wright and company may have taken the title a little too literally.

Posted by Peter Nellhaus at November 1, 2017 09:38 AM