A Film Review by Tim Riley

DARKEST HOUR (Rated PG-13) In the context of the surfeit of plain rubbish and inferior entertainment that Hollywood has been delivering of late, it may not be all that flattering to note that “Darkest Hour” is clearly one of the best films this year.

Yet, not only does history come alive in this riveting drama, but Gary Oldman’s total immersion into the compelling character of British Prime Minister Winston Churchill during wartime is nothing short of amazing and brilliant.

Indeed, the story of his stellar leadership during the critical days of 1940 when Hitler’s army had conquered vast swaths of continental Europe is one that must be told and remembered by generations not intimately familiar with the full picture of Nazi Germany’s brutal ambitions.

“Darkest Hour” makes for an excellent companion piece to Christopher Nolan’s “Dunkirk,” given that Churchill’s ascension to the leadership of Parliament only a short time before the evacuation of British troops had much to do with setting in motion the civilian rescue flotilla.

As directed by Joe Wright, “Darkest Hour,” though centered during the time period of the evacuation, focuses primarily on turbulent policy debates that put Churchill up against the appeasers in his own party, namely the infamous Neville Chamberlain and Viscount Edward Halifax.

History does not fondly remember Chamberlain (Ronald Pickup) for being cozy with Adolf Hitler and negotiating from a position of weakness in a vain attempt to have the German dictator respect Britain’s independence while carving up the rest of Europe.

Retaining his position in the party leadership, Chamberlain, along with the complicity of Halifax (Stephen Dillane), seemed determined to undermine Churchill’s authority, pushing for an ill-advised peace treaty during the War Cabinet meetings.

It did not help matters that seemingly everyone from King George VI (Ben Mendelsohn) to members of his own party had serious doubts about the new Prime Minister, going so far as to recall his grave mistakes made in the course of the Battle of Gallipoli during World War I.

We first glimpse Churchill at his Chartwell home, having the breakfast of champions, which consisted of whiskey, eggs and sausage topped off with champagne and a cigar, all the while remaining under the watchful eye of his faithful yet often exasperated wife Clementine (Kristin Scott Thomas).

The other person who came to be close to Churchill during this crucial time is his nervous new personal secretary Elizabeth Layton (Lily James), who keeps pace with his dictation of speeches that would prove to be the turning point in bringing the nation to Churchill’s side.

The tension rises when Churchill has to thread the needle of battling opposition to his views from all sides, including military officers in the cabinet meetings who had misgivings about strategy and the politicians who sought the easy way out.

A brilliant though likely fictional scene involves Churchill sneaking off for his first ride on the London underground where he gauges the sentiment of ordinary citizens for the appetite to fight the Nazi tyranny to the death, if necessary.

For a man seemingly detached from the public, Churchill’s interaction with the people gives him great inspiration for the speech he gives to Parliament to rally the politicians to the task of fighting for Britain’s ideals, liberty and freedom.

Along the way to his famous “We shall fight!” speech to the House of Commons that also electrifies the populace with the battle cry to stop Nazi aggression in the face of difficult odds, Churchill is shown time and again with facing intractable reluctance to his point of view.

Even the United States is unwilling to help provide basic needs, with a late night phone call where President Franklin D. Roosevelt delivers the bad news that America’s Neutrality Act prevents any assistance to the beleaguered island nation.

Things are becoming increasingly grim as France is rapidly collapsing to the German Army’s advance and the roughly 300,000 troops huddled on the beaches of Dunkirk are running out of options to hold off the invaders.

At one point, Churchill only momentarily contemplates Halifax’s fervent wish to broker a deal with Hitler through Mussolini acting as intermediary, but then he was never really amenable to dealing with the German madman.

Darkest Hour” proves willing to look at a great man who had his faults. Churchill could be confrontational, stubborn, and unpleasant. He appeared not to make friends easily. His first encounter with his secretary Elizabeth is far less than agreeable.

In the end, “Darkest Hour” celebrates the man who very well saved the world from the dominance of a Nazi German empire. When Hollywood focuses so much on cartoon superheroes, the real superhero of Western Civilization smoked cigars and constantly flashed the “victory” sign during World War II.

As of now, “Darkest Hour” is in limited release but should go wider later in the holiday season or in the New Year. By all means, this is a great film that should be enjoyed and Gary Oldman is a sure Oscar contender for it.

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