Middleburg Film Review: ‘Darkest Hour’ Is a Compelling Portrait of Leadership

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Lily James stars as Elizabeth Layton and Gary Oldman as Winston Churchill in director Joe Wright's DARKEST HOUR, a Focus Features release.Credit: Jack English / Focus Features

2017 MIDDLEBURG FILM FESTIVAL: As a politically charged, historical piece of filmmaking, it’ll be difficult to find a better example than Joe Wright‘s fiery “Darkest Hour.”  Boasting possibly one of the all-time great performances from Gary Oldman as Winston Churchill, the film exhibits a rare intelligence of showing a reenactment of true events blended brilliantly with creative liberties.  If you aren’t into such intricate detail, the film’s deliberate pace may have dire consequences for impatient viewers.  It resists cheap sentiment and trades it in for thoughtful, insightful emotions.

Darkest Hour,” tells the story of the early days of World War II, when the fate of Western Europe hung on the shoulders of the newly appointed British Prime Minister Winston Churchill (Oldman).  Churchill must decide whether to negotiate with the vile Adolf Hitler or fight on against incredible odds.

With a luminous career that has given such iconic performances including an Oscar nomination for “Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy,” Gary Oldman has given us his gift to cinema with his effulgent interpretation of one of history’s most complex political figures.  Oldman’s performance shares DNA with other powerhouses over the years including Daniel Day-Lewis in “Lincoln” and David Oyelowo in “Selma.”  A zesty turn with a snip-snap wit, one that will surely pave the way to the Dolby Theatre and earn him his first Academy Award.

The film’s cast is dynamic, energetic cohesion.  Kristin Scott Thomas is vibrant as Churchill’s wife Clementine while Lily James‘ sensitive portrayal of Elizabeth Layton, Churchill’s secretary is superb.  Watch out for Thomas’ entry into the Supporting Actress Oscar race.

In a film bottle-necked with testosterone, it’s Stephen Dillane‘s combustible and intense portrayal as Viscount Halifax that emerges.  In the film’s pinnacle and best exchange, Dillane and Oldman teach an acting master class, not just with theory but with hands-on training for generations to come.

Ronald Pickup‘s work as Neville Chamberlain is a welcomed addition while Ben Mendelsohn‘s King George VI’s work stands competently against Colin Firth’s Oscar-winning portrayal in “The King’s Speech.”

As most Joe Wright films, his film to packed to the brim with the talent behind the camera as much as it is in front.  Bruno Delbonnel‘s wicked and whimsical camera work might be his best yet, slightly surpassing his crowning work on “Inside Llewyn Davis.”  Getting a physical reaction out of this reviewer, every time a killer shot was presented, you can’t help but sit in awe of its beauty.

Composer Dario Marianelli activates his most ingenious sensibilities as his orchestra builds in every frame.  It’s an equaled measure to his already innovative work on “Atonement” a decade ago.

Wright’s clever direction paired with Anthony McCarten‘s perspicacious script makes “Darkest Hour” one of the year’s most creative outings.  McCarten lives in the details but his exploration of the “bending truth” may be a bit too evident to some.

Darkest Hour” is a calculated movie experience, vibrant and penetrating as it shows the endless possibilities of what a leader can and ought to be.

“Darkest Hour” is screening at the Middleburg Film Festival, is distributed by Focus Features, and opens in theaters on Nov. 22.

GRADE: (★½)

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LEAD ACTOR | LEAD ACTRESS | SUPPORTING ACTOR | SUPPORTING ACTRESS | 
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PRODUCTION DESIGN | CINEMATOGRAPHY | COSTUME DESIGN | FILM EDITING | MAKEUP & HAIRSTYLING | SOUND MIXING | SOUND EDITING | VISUAL EFFECTS |
ORIGINAL SCORE | ORIGINAL SONG |
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