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Film review: 'Darkest Hour'

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No less than the third film this year to focus on the World War II evacuation of Dunkirk, "Darkest Hour" is the straightforward historical drama counterpoint to Christopher Nolan's action-oriented "Dunkirk" and the crowd-pleasing melodrama of Lone Scherfig's "Their Finest."

"Darkest Hour" comes from director Joe Wright (who previously dramatized the evacuation in a show-stopping, five-minute, single take sequence for his film, "Atonement"), and it especially makes an excellent companion piece to Nolan's telling. Filling in the other side of Operation Dynamo -- which recruited a civilian fleet to evacuate Allied troops from the French coast after they'd been surrounded by German forces -- the film gives us the perspective of its mastermind, Winston Churchill, played here by Gary Oldman.

Beginning on May 1940, when Churchill replaced Neville Chamberlain (Ronald Pickup) as Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, the film chronicles Churchill's first month in power. In this relatively short but critical period, Churchill is forced to quickly prove his mettle as a world leader: facing a devastating war, his country needs to be mobilized in the long battle to defeat the Nazi scourge.

Germany's invasion seems imminent, and with Chamberlain and Viscount Halifax imploring him to enter peace negotiations with Hitler, Churchill faces immense pressure from all sides. Wright visualizes this by repeatedly isolating Oldman within boxes in the frame, surrounded on all sides by darkness. Throughout, he finds moments to showcase the type of gliding camerawork and flashy visual flourishes the filmmaker has become known for.

As with all of Wright's films, "Darkest Hour" is made with impeccable technical precision and skill. The shadowy, often nearly black-and-white cinematography by Bruno Delbonnel gives the film an elegant polish. The score by Dario Marianelli consistently finds the right tone, alternating between quiet melancholy and dramatic bombast.

Anthony McCarten's screenplay is intelligently written, misstepping only during one silly (and entirely invented) scene in which Churchill rides the Underground to poll the everyday British folk he encounters on whether to engage in peace talks with Hitler. Naturally, they implore him to fight on.

But the movie belongs to Oldman, who manages an impressive disappearing act, buried under layers of prosthetics (the distinctive jowls were created by makeup artist Kazuhiro Tsuji, whose work is undeniably impressive). Astonishing physical transformation aside, the actor captures Churchill's blustery demeanor, as well as his shrewd intelligence and wit.

Churchill had the instincts of a skilled performer, capable of swaying a crowd with the power of his oratorical skill and fiery rhetoric. Oldman delivers those stirring speeches with aplomb, and as the film progresses it becomes an exploration of the way that words themselves can be weaponized in the fight against tyranny.

Though "Darkest Hour" is Oldman's show, a few supporting players do their best to make an impression, some with more success than others. Lily James serves as the audience conduit into this world of backroom politics, playing Churchill's timid new typist, Elizabeth Layton. James gives a fine performance, but her character doesn't serve much purpose beyond the purely functional. Ben Mendelsohn is also quite good as King George VI, who makes no attempt to hide his wariness of Churchill during their required meetings together.

Strongest among the lot is Kristin Scott Thomas as Churchill's wife, Clementine. In too many of these sort of Great Man biopics, the wife role feels superfluous, but even with little screen time, Scott Thomas brings life to her character. Though she long ago made peace with coming in second to her husband's political career, Clementine is every bit his equal. The scenes of them together, as she provides a sounding board for Churchill to plan his next move, are among the film's best.

Part of the challenge on historical dramas like "Darkest Hour" is finding a way to make events that are already preordained feel dramatic and urgent, but Wright and McCarten never quite accomplish that here. Of all the movies to feature in this year's awards conversation, "Darkest Hour" feels the most conventional. Not to imply that those discussions are the be-all and end-all of determining a film's quality, but this feels like a movie designed to win awards, albeit a very good version of that type of movie. Powered by Gary Oldman's excellent performance, "Darkest Hour" is sturdy, stylish and sporadically rousing filmmaking -- it's just not terribly exciting.

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