Movie Review ~ Darkest Hour

1

The Facts:

Synopsis: During the early days of World War II, the fate of Western Europe hangs on the newly-appointed British Prime Minister Winston Churchill, who must decide whether to negotiate with Hitler, or fight on against incredible odds.

Stars: Gary Oldman, Kristin Scott Thomas, Lily James, Stephen Dillane, Ronald Pickup, Ben Mendelsohn

Director: Joe Wright

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 125 minutes

TMMM Score: (8.5/10)

Review:  2017 has sure been a kind year for Winston Churchill.  The late prime minister of the UK has popped up on the small screen courtesy of John Lithgow’s award-winning supporting turn in Netflix’s The Crown, he’s mentioned favorably in Dunkirk and Their Finest, and now comes Darkest Hour where the spotlight is firmly on him.  Though in death (as in life) he has as many critics as he does fans, this is a man that clearly deserves a place in the annals of history.  Thanks to an incredible leading performance, strong direction, and a solid script, Darkest Hour is an entertaining pop-up book that’s much more than just a lesson from the past.

As the shadow of another World War looms over Europe, the British parliament is in upheaval and calling for the resignation of it’s current prime minister Neville Chamberlain (a sneering Ronald Pickup, The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel).  Hoping to suggest a replacement that will have enough of a rough go that his political party can sweep in to save the day, Chamberlain suggests to the King that Winston Churchill take his place.  Unliked since leading the failed Gallipoli Campaign during WWI, Churchill had been a strong voice against the Nazis back when no one was giving them or their leader much credence.

The King (Ben Mendelsohn, The Dark Knight Rises) is leery about appointing a man he doesn’t trust but acquiesces.  Over the next several weeks Churchill steps into the role during a firestorm of opposition from every angle, eventually steering the government to reject any notions of proposed surrender to German forces.  In doing so, he gained the trust of the people as they banded together and rallied behind their sovereign nation at her most vulnerable time.

All this plot is easily accessible in your tattered history book from sixth grade but while the details haven’t changed, it’s in the telling that creates powerful filmmaking.  Director Joe Wright (Anna Karenina) has, as usual, crafted an intricate period film that’s striking in its detail and rousing in all the right places.  Working with Anthony McCarten’s (The Theory of Everything) sharp script, Wright keeps the film refreshingly nimble, making even stuffy parliament scenes crackle with energy.  Keeping his camera moving (with assistance from Inside Llewyn Davis cinematographer Bruno Delbonnel), he stages wonderful scenes of overlapping dialogue that are not only informative but interesting to watch.

While most men in Churchill’s life gave him trouble (including a scheming Viscount Halifax played by Stephen Dillane, Zero Dark Thirty), according to Darkest Hour it’s two women that kept him in line during this difficult period.  His personal secretary Elizabeth Layton (Lily James, Cinderella) starts off on the wrong foot with her demanding, persnickety boss but eventually develops into a confidant/cheerleader that he counted on.  Same goes for his steadfast wife, Clemmie (Kristin Scott Thomas, Salmon Fishing in the Yemen) who isn’t afraid to point out to her husband when he’s out of line.  Scott Thomas and James are both excellent in their roles and have ample time to shine, though I often longed for more scenes with Churchill and his wife and less with Layton as the marital relationship felt that it had more of an edge.

All Wright has assembled would make for a strong film about Churchill but if he didn’t have someone to play the man himself it would have all been for naught.  Lucky for him (and us) that he hired Gary Oldman because that’s what sends Darkest Hour skyrocketing.  Oldman (RoboCop) gives the performance of his career (and what a career to begin with!) as Churchill, managing to work under superb prosthetics that transformed him into the historical figure but not letting the make-up do all the heavy lifting.  His acting radiates from within, never coming off as showboating or faux but as a real-life rendering of a man challenged to lead in a time of imminent darkness.  It’s just spectacular work and if he doesn’t win an Oscar for his efforts, well then, I just don’t know what to make of this crazy world anymore.

Special mention must be made to Kazuhiro Tsuji (Looper, The Place Beyond the Pines) for his stunning make-up work for Oldman.  It’s mighty difficult to age and fatten up the actor as he did but the seamless work should net Tsuji his first Oscar after two previous nominations.  Same goes for Jacqueline Durran’s (Beauty and the Beast) luxe costumes that manages to make even Churchill’s suits look chic.

I went into Darkest Hour not being totally in the mood for a history lesson and was surprised at how captivated I was for two hours.  Even for a story where we already know how things turn out, I was often on the edge of my seat and truly entranced by Wright’s vision and Oldman’s performance.  It’s not just a film made up of speechifying and hot air, it’s a thrilling examination of the forward momentum of a country that was cheered onward by a determined man.

The Silver Bullet ~ The Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel

second_best_exotic_marigold_hotel

Synopsis: Two hopeful new arrivals at The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel for the Elderly and Beautiful quickly learn that there is only a single room left to rent.

Release Date: March 6, 2015

Thoughts: A surprise hit that built dynamic staying power thanks to good word of mouth when released in early summer of 2012, The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel was a pleasant bit of fluff that benefited greatly from its starry cast of over the hill talent. In an interesting move, a sequel has been constructed that reunites the cast, writer, and director of the original in hopes that audiences will want to check-in again. I wasn’t knocked out by the first film but in all honesty by the time I saw it the hype machine was in full swing so I’m chalking my middle of the road feelings toward it up to overly lofty expectations. Based on the trailer for the sequel, it’s more of the same in store but when you have a cast featuring Judi Dench (Skyfall), Maggie Smith (Quartet), Richard Gere (American Gigolo), and Bill Nighy (About Time) I have little reservation about making a, uh, reservation.

Movie Review ~ The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel

The Facts:

Synopsis: British retirees travel to India to take up residence in what they believe is a newly restored hotel. Less luxurious than its advertisements, the Marigold Hotel nevertheless slowly begins to charm in unexpected ways.

Stars: Judi Dench, Bill Nighy, Maggie Smith,Tom Wilkinson, Celia Imrie, Ronald Pickup, Dev Patel, Penelope Wilton 

Director: John Madden

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 124 Minutes

Random Crew Highlight: Unit Minibus Driver ~ Chris Hammond

TMMM Score: (7/10)

Review:  It’s almost too easy.  The gathering of some of the UK’s most celebrated actors and actresses in one film creates a pile of good will right off the bat.  Add to that a respected director, gorgeous locales, and a plot that brims with surprises and it’s no wonder the film has been a sleeper hit since it was released in the US in May. 

Opening with the expected rainy and grim shots of London, the ensemble drama introduces us to our main group of old-timers as they hit all the stereotypical “old age” milestones.  Loss of spouse, loss of independence, loss of available partners…it’s all covered in a mature way that lets us know that if anyone would be swayed by a brochure for a luxury retirement hotel in mysterious India, these people would.

There’s no obvious main character in the film but Dench stands out as a quasi narrator that the film could be seen through the eyes of.  A recent widow with bills to pay she sells her flat to cover her costs and heads to India alongside a handful of others in similar situations.  I found it hard to believe that everyone would be leaving on the same day, on the same route, with the same transportation but that’s part of the easy going nature of the film that you forget about logical wrinkles.

Speaking of wrinkles, it’s refreshing to see stars of a certain age owning their advanced years without lampooning themselves.  There are a few jokes made at their expense, yes, but as this is a UK made/financed production the script is fine tuned to place the actors in lightly comedic situations rather than making humiliating jokes about diapers, Viagra, and bad driving (as you know any American made film would have). 

Dench is in good company with the likes of Wilkinson as a judge who returns to India for an unexpectedly sincere reunion, Wilton and Nighy (in a tender and welcome departure) as a couple who feel that a change will help them avoid red flags in their relationship, and singles Imrie and Pickup as randy old timers that long for companionship with good old fashioned benefits.  Only Patel seems to take the easy way out and fashion his hopeless Indian hotel manager character through the eyes of an American idea of the Indian people.  He settles down as the picture unspools so that by its conclusion his story is as important as the people renting space in his hotel. 

Smith almost always deserves special mention so I’m calling her out here as the sparkling center of the Marigold experience.  Her part isn’t all that challenging (she spends nearly all of it in a wheelchair) but Smith doesn’t need to move around much to deliver a smashing performance…though the film does at times use her more as a plot tool rather than a real character.  Still, no one can send a sharp barb quite like Smith and the film really comes alive with her experiences at the hotel.

In an ensemble movie it can be difficult to juggle so many characters and storylines without occasionally losing sight of the through line.  I did feel that people would disappear for long stretches…long enough for you to forget they are also playing a part in the overall story.  In that respect, the movie feels longer than it should although it doesn’t overstay its welcome.  Madden (Shakespeare in Love, The Debt) does corral the film nicely, though, and does an admirable job showing the day-to-day life of the Indian culture.

The acting is strong across the board but with actors this good and characters so broadly drawn I found myself wondering what it would have been like had the parts shifted a bit.  I’m not sure it would have mattered because I think the actors could have made any combination work and probably what ended up on screen was for the best. 

It took me a while to get to it as my time was taken up with the latest summer blockbuster…but finally taking in The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel was a frothy affair.  It won’t go down as the best film in the roster of these pros but is a film I can see returning to with pleasure.