REVIEW: “Darkest Hour” (2017)

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Lest anyone be confused (and I highly doubt they will be) this is not a review of the atrocious doomsday alien invasion thriller from 2011. Instead this is director Joe Wright’s biographical wartime drama based on Winston Churchill’s early days as England’s Prime Minister. Quite a difference, right?

In early May of 1940 Hitler’s army has made major advances and now stands at the Belgian border preparing to push through in their efforts to conquer what remains of Europe. On May 9th a frustrated British Parliament demands the resignation of Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain due to his weakness in the face of the rising Nazi threat.

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Behind the scenes Chamberlain (Ronald Pickup) and his followers are still pulling the political strings. With the backing of King George (played by a perfectly tempered Ben Mendelsohn), Chamberlain seeks to put in someone who will continue to push his agenda. But it becomes clear there is only one man the divided parties will accept – Winston Churchill (Gary Oldman).

By now there should be no one doubting Gary Oldman’s tremendous range. He’s played a drugged-out dirty cop, a Russian terrorist, and a corrupt U.S. congressman. He’s played Sid Vicious, Lee Harvey Oswald, Count Dracula and now Winston Churchill. Thanks to the miracle of makeup and prosthetics as well as Oldman’s innate attention to detail, you instantly buy into this particular portrait of Churchill. The barely recognizable but thoroughly captivating Oldman delivers an Oscar-ripe performance that draws from his varied skill set.

The script is from Oscar-nominated screenwriter Anthony McCarten whose previous work was the acclaimed Stephen Hawking biopic “The Theory of Everything”. Here he pours everything into his lead character. He gives Oldman plenty of opportunities to sink his teeth into the role without resorting to gimmicky “Awards-worthy” big moments. Also McCarten is smart enough not to overextend his story. This isn’t meant to be a comprehensive biopic and the film’s tighter focus works.

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A good chunk of the movie highlights the political wrangling Churchill faced by his opposition who desperately wanted peace talks with Hitler. It begins to feel a bit drawn out but most of it is pretty fascinating. And I really enjoyed the personal moments we get especially between Churchill and his wife Clementine (wonderfully played by Kristin Scott Thomas). There is also the relationship between Churchill and Elizabeth Nel (Lily James), a young typist who eventually became his personal secretary. Their scenes are nicely done and offer a window into a different side of Churchill.

“Darkest Hour” maneuvers through Churchill’s appointment to Prime Minister, the political tensions that undoubtedly wore him down, the looming Nazi threat, and Operation Dynamo which saw the evacuation of over 300,000 troops stranded on the beaches of Dunkirk. But the movie never loses sight of the personal side of this larger than life character. At the same time Joe Wright offers up compelling and timely lessons on conviction, persuasion, and the power of bipartisanship – all things our current governments could learn from.

VERDICT – 4 STARS

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“HANNA” – 4 STARS

In “Hanna” Saoirse Ronan plays the title character who lives in isolation with her father Erik (Eric Bana) in the snow-covered forests of Finland. While there, he’s instructs her in methods of survival and trains her in hand-to-hand combat which immediately let’s you know there is more going on under the surface. Hanna finds out she has been trained to kill Marissa Wiegler (Cate Blanchett), a corrupt CIA agent who has a history with Erik. But after setting out on her mission things go wrong and Hanna finds herself running for her life while trying to piece together who she really is and where she came from.

Ronan again proves she is one of the top young acting talents in film today. She’s simply magnificent as the sheltered but lethal Hanna. She captures the conflict within Hanna through some tender scenes that show her innocent curiosity and some intense action sequences that show the violent nature of her training. Hanna hasn’t experienced any of the modern conveniences or technologies of today and it truly feels as if you are watching her enter a whole new world. It’s also great to see Eric Bana giving a good performance in a very nice role for him. But the usually solid Cate Blanchett is surprisingly inconsistent as C.I.A. agent Wiegler. She sometimes comes across as unconvincing and her odd southern accent seems to come and go. But overall this is Ronan’s show and she is fantastic.

Director Joe Wright starts the film with a bang and keeps it moving at a break-neck pace. It never loses it’s frantic energy or momentum. The gritty techno soundtrack by The Chemical Brothers isn’t overused and, along with the quick camera cuts and sharp angles, contributes to the overall feel of the picture. “Hanna” moves from one country to another and is filmed in some beautiful locations including Finland, Germany, and Morocco. There’s also a unique style to the way “Hanna” is made. At times it has an almost fantasy feel to it due to the way it’s shot and edited. Other times it shows some pretty standard elements from other action/revenge thrillers.

But the film does have a few issues. Throughout the picture you feel there is more to the story than there really is. The abrupt ending is satisfying in one sense but it’s also conventional and predictable. The tension that nicely builds up seems a little hollow as the film reveals itself to be nothing more than a high-octane action/chase picture. Now don’t get me wrong, I love a good action/chase picture. But “Hanna” seemed to be breaking away from the traditional action movie formula. Unfortunately it doesn’t see it through to the end.

The few gripes aside, “Hanna” is a fun and stylish movie as well as a showcase for young Saoirse Ronan. I can’t say enough about her performance. And while Blanchett’s performance is a little distracting and the ending may be somewhat of a letdown, it doesn’t kill the film. There’s many other things to like about “Hanna” and many things that separates it from most action thrillers. So sit down, buckle up, and enjoy the ride. I know I did.