Blu-ray Review: Darkest Hour

By , Contributor
Factual inaccuracies aside, director Joe Wright's Darkest Hour is a rousing, unexpectedly humorous, imminently watchable film. Arriving on Blu-ray hot on the heels of the 90th Academy Awards ceremony, it's high time to catch up with this filmed adaption of Winston Churchill's earliest period as Prime Minister of Great Britain. Wright, working from a screenplay by Anthony McCarten, maintains a brisk pace that ensures Darkest Hour never feels like a stodgy piece of historical fiction.

Again, speaking of fiction, there are liberties taken with the real history (and some rather strange outright inventions), but Wright and McCarten's intention here is to highlight the generally mixed feelings in Parliament toward a figure who—post-Word War II—is generally lionized. The film picks up in May 1940 as ailing PM Neville Chamberlain (Ronald Pickup) is facing pressure to resign. Churchill (Gary Oldman) is the controversial choice for replacement. He's hawkish, whereas Chamberlain and Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs Edward Wood (Stephen Dillane) favor potential peace negotiations with Italy and Germany. Churchill stands his ground firmly as he steadfastly refuses to consider an attempt at reasoning with Hitler or Mussolini.

Much of Darkest Hour deals with the rescue at Dunkirk initiated by Churchill (again, bucking many opinions strongly held by his underlings). Anyone who saw Christopher Nolan's Dunkirk is likely to appreciate the "behind the scenes" glimpse into the planning of the operation. Nolan chose to focus solely on a "man in the field" approach, depicting the action of the mission from air, sea, and land (a detrimental approach, in my opinion, as I outlined in my review of that film). But Wright's film provides a necessary counterpart of Nolan's—though entirely different in style, the two films serve to strengthen the best in each, filling in holes found within both films.

As Churchill, Gary Oldman more than earns his Oscar nomination. In fact, he pretty much has "Nominate Me" stamped across his forehead. Some have cried out with charges of overacting, but the marvel in Oldman's work is in his quietest moments. Even buried below a mound of makeup (truly impressive makeup at that, also justly nominated by the Academy), the actor conveys a wide array of subtle emotions. It's not all bluster and histrionics, but when called upon to display Churchill at his most fiery, Oldman imbues every line and gesture with conviction.

The supporting cast, including Kristen Scott Thomas as Winston's devoted wife Clementine, is ace as well. Quietly stealing the show is Lily James (good in last year's Baby Driver but even better here) as Churchill's personal secretary Elizabeth Layton. Though the filmmakers play quite loose with the actual history of Layton's employment, the liberties taken are mostly understandable. She was a vital figure during Churchill's prime ministership and her memoir (Winston Churchill By His Personal Secretary Elizabeth Nel), though by no means the source of Darkest Hour, undoubtedly provided great insight for the filmmakers. The bit about her brother dying in battle is an invention—and a bizarre, unnecessary one.

At any rate, Darkest Hour earns its half-dozen Oscar nominations (including Best Picture, though not director for Wright). Fans of conventional storytelling and more traditionally-oriented Hollywood historical fiction will likely prefer it to the also Best-Picture-nominated Dunkirk.

Universal Studios' gorgeous Blu-ray edition (no 4K UltraHD version as of yet) boasts a few bonus supplements. Director Joe Wright offers feature-length commentary—after sampling it, I found Wright's tone agreeable and the will likely return to finish listening (especially to see if he addresses some specific liberties taken along the way). We also get some brief featurettes—"Into Darkest Hour" and "Gary Oldman: Becoming Churchill"—that are breezy, EPK-styled pieces. A deeper examination of the real history might've been welcome, but one of the best aspects of Darkest Hour is that its engaging style will likely lead many viewers to learn more about Churchill and his leadership.


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Chaz Lipp is a Las Vegas-based musician and freelance writer. His new jazz album 'Good Merlin' is now available.

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