Leave it to the stiff-upper-lip Brits to make three Dunkirk movies in the same year, all of which get this American choked up in their respective climactic scene through noticeably different ways.
Darkest Hour pulls heartstrings in the most old school, bombastic, performance-driven manner, consistent with the lead turn by a practically unrecognizable Gary Oldman as British Prime Minister Winston Churchill.
His big, towering performance — the likes of which haven’t been seen since Daniel Day-Lewis in There Will Be Blood — completely works within the context of the film, Joe Wright’s least showy feature since Pride & Prejudice and one designed to let the acting and story lead the way.
The result atones for the supreme mediocrity 2017’s Churchill and Brian Cox’s lukewarm take on the Prime Minister, improving on practically every detail of the fundamentally similar D-Day driven film.
In step with Oldman’s magnetic turn, the script by Anthony McCarten (The Theory of Everything) doles out spellbinding drama courtesy of the subterfuge led by Viscount Halifax (Stephen Dillane) in the name of removed P.M. Neville Chamberlain (Ronald Pickup) to quickly kick Churchill out of office and ensure peace talks with Hitler.
Unwilling to trust that their enemy would be reasonable or honor any deal — “You can not reason with a Tiger when your head is in its mouth” — Churchill unintentionally further isolates himself from those around him, but finds allies when he most desperately needs them.
Supportive in her own ways, Kristin Scott Thomas doesn’t get much to do as Clementine Churchill, though Lily James bolsters the female side as the P.M.’s confident new secretary Elizabeth Layton.
Churchill’s gradual earning of respect from King George VI (Ben Mendelsohn) likewise makes for a compelling arc, yet it’s Churchill’s rogue jaunt to spend time with the citizenry in order to formulate the most informed decision regarding England’s future that gives Darkest Hour the heart and humanity to rise above mere thin candy shell for an Oscar-worthy performance.
Dramatically fit as it is, however, the filmmaking is somewhat tame stylistically. Visuals in the vein of the excellent mixed media, child’s play depictions of bombs falling on England are sadly few, though tastefully placed.
And while salvaging the British military from the French coast to foster fighting another day greatly affects the plot, all that’s shown of Dunkirk is one shot of the civilian navy in action, a magnificent but brief moment from the director whose 5 1/2 minute uncut tracking shot on the beach in Atonement got the whole British rescue trend going a decade ago.
Grade: B-plus. Rated PG-13. Now playing at Biltmore Grande and the Fine Arts Theatre
(Photo: Focus Feature)