One of the best surprises of 2017, Darkest Hour features an Oscar-worthy portrayal of Winston Churchill by Gary Oldman, but director Joe Wright’s chronicle of the legendary British prime minister’s tumultuous first month in office during a critical early period of World War II stands on its own as a riveting and artistic film and deserved Best Picture nominee. Five-star video and terrific audio enhance Universal’s Blu-ray presentation, which comes Highly Recommended.
“Without victory, there can be no survival.”
A number of excellent actors have portrayed British Prime Minister Winston Churchill over the course of several decades, and though I've only seen a fraction of those performances, I can state with some certainty Gary Oldman's turn in Darkest Hour looms above most of them. His victory in the Best Actor category at the Academy Awards on March 4 seems like a sure bet, and it would be a popular win indeed. Oldman has enjoyed a distinguished career, and the cantankerous Churchill is just the type of transformative role Oscar loves to reward. Meryl Streep won her third Academy Award a few years ago for playing another steely British prime minister - Margaret Thatcher in The Iron Lady - so it seems only fitting Oldman should take home his first for Darkest Hour, which just might be the actor's finest hour.
Yet Oldman's riveting portrayal is not the only reason to see director Joe Wright's film. Yes, it often dominates the proceedings in much the same manner Churchill dominated the international stage during World War II, but Darkest Hour, a taut, blistering chronicle of the leader's first month in office, is an exceptional movie in its own right, a fact that's validated by its six Oscar nominations, including one for Best Picture. Meticulously crafted, beautifully filmed, and featuring both a lyrical script and terrific performances across the board, this spellbinding historical drama grips us from the opening frames and doesn't release its grasp until Churchill storms out of the House of Commons two hours later. I'm a fan of most of this year's Best Picture nominees, but there's something about Darkest Hour that separates it from the rest of the field. It won't win the top prize this Sunday, but I'll probably remember it with far more fondness than the movie that will.
Detailing a few tense weeks in May 1940, the film begins with Churchill's unexpected ascension to the office of prime minister after the crushing failure of his weak-willed, inept predecessor, Neville Chamberlain (Ronald Pickup), to provide decisive leadership during wartime. Churchill, who proclaims he has "nothing to offer but blood, toil, tears, and sweat," faces constant pressure from his political opponents, led by the pompous Lord Halifax (Stephen Dillane), to forge a peace treaty with Germany, especially during the wrenching ordeal of Dunkirk, which threatens to destroy the British military and open the door to Nazi invasion and occupation. Yet Churchill's refusal to negotiate with Hitler and fierce desire to fight Germany despite overwhelming odds of defeat remain steadfast, and as the days creep by, his commitment, tenacity, and controversial military plans born out of frantic desperation are severely tested.
Always a controversial figure in British politics, Churchill rose to power because of his ability to unite the bitterly divided Parliament during the critical early months of World War II. Demanding, fastidious, bombastic, free-wheeling, and often belligerent, Churchill rubbed many the wrong way, including at times his devoted and loving wife Clementine (Kristen Scott Thomas), loyal secretary Elizabeth Layton (Lily James), and Britain’s King George VI (Ben Mendelsohn), who initially opposed his appointment. Yet his keen intellect, boundless energy, stubborn resolve, and passionate patriotism endeared him for a time to a frightened nation unsure of its ability to confront such dire peril, let alone conquer it.
Most of the film transpires in cramped war rooms, on the floor of Parliament, and in the splendor of Buckingham Palace, and features heated confrontations, intense deliberations, and soaring orations by one of the great masters of the English language. That might sound static and a bit dull, yet Wright infuses Darkest Hour with as much artistry as his previous Best Picture nominee, Atonement. Plenty of innovative imagery, which both offsets and heightens the pervasive feeling of claustrophobia, keeps the eye engaged and lends the story a lyricism similar political yarns often lack. In less competent hands, Darkest Hour could have been as dry as an unbuttered piece of English toast, but Wright's creativity supplies a silky richness to the proceedings even during stark, straightforward scenes.
Credit must also go to Anthony McCarten, whose superior script endeavors to provide a balanced assessment of Churchill by interjecting domestic episodes into the narrative and depicting the prime minister's desire to keep in touch with working class English citizens. Creative license, of course, is often taken, but a strong basis in fact sustains the picture. Darkest Hour may not merit a screening in a high school history class, but as far as these types of entertainments go, it rates relatively high on the accuracy scale. More of a snapshot of Churchill than a warts-and-all portrait (the screenplay doesn't address some of his controversial political, military, and social views), the film captures the prime minister in a specific moment in time, and while he certainly earns our admiration over the tale's course, Wright and McCarten stop short of canonizing him. Instead, they constantly emphasize the humanity and uncompromising toughness that make Churchill such a fascinating and complex figure.
Oldman evokes him completely, but without offering an impersonation or slipping into caricature. The makeup and prosthetics don't aspire to make him a dead ringer for Churchill and never overwhelm his work, which remains respectful, focused, and wonderfully nuanced throughout. Thomas makes a formidable foil as the forthright, elegant Clementine, who's not intimidated by her larger-than-life husband and relishes going toe-to-toe with him, and James is sensitive and quite lovely as the demure secretary who's almost constantly by his side, ready - if not always able - to transcribe his feverish ramblings. Mendelsohn is excellent as King George VI and Pickup contributes top-notch work as the beleaguered Chamberlain, who must simultaneously weather disgrace, political intrigue, and the symptoms of debilitating cancer.
Darkest Hour is a fine companion piece to Christopher Nolan's Dunkirk, as it fleshes out the causes and effects of that monumental event and examines it within a larger historical context. It also provides a fascinating look at political maneuvering, desperate military improvisation, and grace under tremendous pressure. Oldman's portrayal, of course, remains central to all of it, and its sweeping vitality and resonance help propel the film. His work has been - and will continue to be - justly rewarded, but Wright deserves his share of accolades, too, for making one of the best movies of 2017.
Vital Disc Stats: The Blu-ray
Darkest Hour arrives on Blu-ray packaged in a standard case inside a sleeve. A standard-def DVD and leaflet containing a code to access the Movies Anywhere digital copy are tucked inside the front cover. Video codec is 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 and audio is Dolby Atmos. Once the disc is inserted into the player, an anti-smoking ad, previews for Phantom Thread and The Man Who Invented Christmas, and a teaser for All I See Is You precede the static menu with music.
Joe Wright is known for visual artistry, and Darkest Hour, despite its stark nature and masculine focus, fits snugly into the director’s film canon. Thankfully, this gorgeous 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 transfer from Universal honors Bruno Delbonnel’s Oscar-nominated cinematography, which beautifully juxtaposes harsh glares and dank interiors with a lush and inviting warmth that wraps itself around the viewer. Exceptional clarity and contrast bring out the delicate weaves of costumes, heighten depth, and showcase the ornate interiors of both Buckingham Palace and Churchill’s residence. Though not a stitch of grain is visible, the image still exudes a marvelous film-like feel that recalls the movies from Churchill’s historical period. Colors are a bit muted to reflect the situation’s dire nature, but splashes of verdant green landscapes and bursts of gold and red punch up the picture. Blacks are lusciously rich, whites are bright but never bloom, and flesh tones remain natural and consistent throughout. Details jump off the screen, from the intricate wallpaper patterns to the crisp etchings on crystal highball glasses, while razor-sharp close-ups highlight the careworn lines, wrinkles, and spots on the faces of the aged characters, as well as the lovely freshness of Lily James’ complexion. Not a nick or speck dots the pristine source material, superior shadow delineation keeps crush at bay, and any digital doctoring escapes notice. Darkest Hour may be a dark, claustrophobic film, but it looks smashing on home video, and the impeccable image quality increases the impact of the narrative and performances.
Darkest Hour comes equipped with a Dolby Atmos track, a surprising choice considering the relative subtlety of the film’s audio components and, at this time, lack of an accompanying UHD release. I don’t yet have an Atmos setup, so I can’t evaluate how well the track makes use of the format’s enhanced capabilities, but it sure sounds great on a 5.1 system. Though surround accents are faint, superior fidelity and tonal depth help the audio achieve a seamless enveloping feel. More distinct stereo separation is noticeable up front, as smooth transitions nicely widen the soundscape. The tapping of typewriter keys, pop of a champagne cork, and the gentle ticking of a clock are wonderfully crisp, while more bombastic elements like the rumble of airplane and auto engines and explosions of falling bombs excite the senses but don’t assault them. Bass frequencies are strong and a wide dynamic scale handles all the highs and lows without a hint of distortion. The music score by long-time Wright collaborator Dario Marianelli, who won an Oscar for Atonement, enjoys fine presence and fills the room with ease, and though some of the dialogue is difficult to comprehend due to Oldman’s gravelly delivery, the bulk of exchanges are easy to understand. This is a far more interesting track than one might expect, and the excellent rendering heightens its impact.
[EDITOR'S NOTE: If one of our Atmos-equipped writers get a chance to watch the film, we'll make sure to update this review.]
A few supplements enhance this Blu-ray release. A vintage Churchill documentary would have been a nice addition, but no such luck.
Audio Commentary - Director Joe Wright sits down for a low-key yet interesting and absorbing commentary that provides both historical and cinematic perspective. Wright says working with Oldman was "possibly the greatest honor" of his career, and he talks about his collaboration with the actor, as well as the makeup and prosthetics that transformed Oldman into Churchill. He also discusses the film's distinct visual style, the importance of having strong female voices in the story, his affection for brisk, rhythmic dialogue, the themes of doubt and isolation that permeate the narrative, and the casting of Ben Mendelsohn as King George VI. In addition, he sprinkles in bits of Churchill trivia (such as Churchill wrote more words during his life than Shakespeare), points out moments in the film that displease him, reveals dirt was added to some of the building exteriors to make them look period specific, and notes John Hurt was originally slated to play Neville Chamberlain. It's always a treat to get a director's views on his own work, and Wright's candid, insightful remarks add a great deal to this fine film.
Featurette: "Into Darkest Hour" (HD, 8 minutes) - This slick EPK includes interviews with director Joe Wright and actors Gary Oldman, Kristin Scott Thomas, Lily James, and others, as well as various technical personnel. Topics include the film's premise, characters, makeup, hair, costumes, production design, historical detail, Wright's directorial style, and the arduous task of replicating the British House of Commons. Plenty of film clips and behind-the-scenes footage flesh out this breezy but not particularly substantive piece.
Featurette: "Gary Oldman: Becoming Churchill" (HD, 4 minutes) - In this brief, snappy featurette, Oldman talks about the daunting task and great privilege of portraying such a lofty and identifiable historical figure, and outlines his preparation for and approach to the role. In addition, his colleagues praise his transformative powers, analyze Churchill's colorful personality, and review the prosthetics and makeup that helped Oldman become Churchill.
Gary Oldman should certainly win the Oscar for his magnificent portrayal of Winston Churchill, but make no mistake, Darkest Hour stands on its own as an enthralling motion picture distinguished by Joe Wright’s arresting direction, an array of top-flight performances, and meticulous attention to historical detail. The story of Churchill’s first tumultuous weeks as Great Britain’s prime minister during the critical early months of World War II brims with both vigor and nuance, and with its five-star video and terrific audio, Universal’s Blu-ray presentation beautifully complements this extremely worthy Best Picture nominee, which comes very Highly Recommended indeed.