Movie reviews: Gary Oldman brings history to life as Winston Churchill in the 'Darkest Hour'
Published Friday, December 8, 2017 6:00AM EST
Last Updated Tuesday, December 19, 2017 10:41AM EST
DARKEST HOUR: 4 ½ STARS
”Atonement” director Joe Wright’s new film is a spirited—and funnier than you’d imagine—retelling of the machinations behind the Second World War’s Operation Dynamo. In a tour de force performance, “Darkest Hour” stars Gary Oldman as Winston Churchill in a movie that would make a great double bill with Christopher Nolan’s “Dunkirk.”
The fireworks begin on May 9, 1940. It’s less than a year into the war and Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain (Ronald Pickup) has lost the confidence of parliament. His handling of the Nazi threat brought Britain into the war and, as a result, in poor health, he is forced to resign. On May 10, Winston Churchill is made prime minister.
He's not exactly a man of the people. "I've never been on a bus,” he wheezes. “I've never queued for bread. I believe I can boil an egg but only because I've seen it done.”
He’s an unconventional choice. His own party thinks of him as a drunkard—it is said that between 1908 and 1965, he partook in 42,000 bottles of his favourite champagne Pol Roget—and members of his War Cabinet, who favour negotiation with the Nazis over resistance and war, begin plotting to remove him almost as soon as he takes power. “I'm getting a job because the ship is sinking,” he says. “It's not a job. It's revenge.”
In the coming days, he battles politicians and nagging self-doubt as he stays steadfast in his determination to fight the Nazis while finding an exit strategy for 300,000 British troops at Dunkirk. “Nations that go down fighting rise again,” he says.
“Darkest Hour” is a historical drama with all the trappings of “Masterpiece Theatre.” You can expect photography, costumes and period details are sumptuous. What you may not expect is the light-hearted tone of much of the goings on. While this isn’t “Carry On Churchill,” it has a lighter touch that might be expected. Oldman, not an actor known for his comedic flourishes, embraces the sly humour. When Churchill becomes prime minister his wife, Clementine (Kristin Scott Thomas) makes an impassioned speech about the importance of the work he is about to take on. He raises a glass and, cutting through the emotion of the moment, says, “Here's to not buggering it up!” It shows a side of Churchill not often revealed in wartime biopics.
We also see the great man in quiet moments with Clementine, the source of much of his strength. The way he is a cowed by his wife when she's called him out for not being kind to his new secretary (Lily James)—"I want others to love and respect you the way I do"—reveal his vulnerabilities and tenderness.
Of course the film also showcases Churchill as a tactician, an orator—“He mobilized the English language and sent it into battle,” says Lord Halifax (Stephen Dillane) after one fiery speech—and a single-minded leader who came to embody the very spirit of English defiance in the face of threats from Germany.
At the heart of the movie, and on almost every frame of film, is Oldman who hits a career high. Underneath layers of makeup and with a cigar wedged in his face, he brings history to life in a performance that goes far past impersonation. The role is a study in resistance and leadership and is sure to earn Oldman an Oscar nomination.
“Darkest Hour” director Wright brings his trademark visual flair. During Churchill’s first BBC speech to the nation, for instance, an overhead shot of the bombing in France turns into the face of one of Hitler's nameless victims but the movie succeeds because Oldman breathes new life into a historical figure we thought we already knew.
THE SHAPE OF WATER: 4 ½ STARS
Love is not about appearances. That’s a common theme. It’s “Beauty and the Beast” and “King Kong.” It’s “Creature from the Black Lagoon” and “Edward Scissorhands.” It’s “ET” and “The Hunchback of Notre Dame.” With “The Shape of Water” Guillermo del Toro redefines the age-old maxim for a new generation.
Set in Cold War-era Baltimore, Sally Hawkins plays Elisa, a woman rendered mute by childhood abuse. A cleaner in a military laboratory and storage facility, she communicates through sign language with co-worker Zelda (Octavia Spencer) and best friend and neighbour Giles (Richard Jenkins). When a mysterious Amazonian Gill Man, held captive in a giant water-filled iron lung, is brought in, the cleaners are told to keep their distance. The creature is not from the Black Lagoon, but from a river in South America.
“The thing we keep in there is an affront,” says the hard-nosed coiled-ball-of-rage Colonel Strickland (Michael Shannon). I should know. I pulled that thing out of a filthy river in South America and dragged it all the way home and we didn't get to like one another much.”
Elisa, however, bonds with the beast. After hours, when everyone else has gone home, she stays behind, playing music for the creature, performing dance moves learned from old movies and feeding him her special hard-boiled eggs. They click. She relates to him being unable to speak. “He doesn't know what I lack,” she tells Giles. “He sees me for what I ham. As I am. He's happy to see me.” He responds to her gentle nature.
His captors feel differently. They see him—“The Asset” they call him—as a case study, ripe for vivisection so they can discover how he can breathe on land and underwater. Everyone, except for Elisa, it seems, wants the Asset dead. The United States government wants to study the body, while the Russians want to kill him and steal the body to prevent the U.S. from learning anything about it.
When Elisa discovers Strickland is torturing the beast, she hatches a catch and release plan. Steal the creature, hide him until the next rainstorm fills a nearby canal and set him free. Zelda and Giles reluctantly agree to help. “He's not human,” protests Giles. “If we don't help it,” Elisa replies, “neither are we.” A doctor (Michael Stuhlbarg) who doesn’t want to see the creature harmed provides medical advice.
The tale of intrigue takes a romantic turn when Elisa begins to regard the Asset as more man than monster.
“The Shape of Water” is a dreamy slice of pure cinema. Del Toro uses the stark Cold War as a canvas to draw warm and vivid portraits of his characters. Elisa and Giles are an unconventional family, outsiders in a world that values conformity. Zelda is a feisty and funny presence—“I can handle pee,” she says, mop in hand cleaning up one of the Asset’s messes. “I can handle poo. But blood? That does something awful to me.”—while the creature is an empathic being with soulful eyes that glows with blue light when he is happy.
The combination of characters and del Toro’s flights of fancy is not only a love letter to the movies—Giles and Elisa live above a movie theatre, watch old musicals on TV and there’s even an Old Hollywood fantasy sequence inside the story—but a Valentine to why we fell in love with the movies in the first place. It’s a feast for the eyes and the heart.
At the center of it all are Hawkins and Doug Jones as the Asset. Both, one nakedly emotional, the other hidden away under layers of make-up, wouldn’t be out of place in a silent movie. The fantasy elements of the story swirl around but Hawkins’s delicate but steely presence (aided by Jenkins’s heartfelt and occasionally heartbreaking loyalty) grounds the story in reality. Jones, though covered in scales and gills, uses his physicality to project the character’s power and vulnerability.
In the story’s thriller section, Shannon provides a villain whose gangrenous fingers are a metaphor for the rot in his soul. In the actor’s hands Strickland is as cold as the blood that runs through the creature’s veins.
Wound tightly together, these elements combine to form a beautiful creature feature ripe with romance, thrills and, above all, empathy for all. This is the kind of movie that reminds us of why we fell in love with movies in the first place.
WONDER WHEEL: 1 ½ STARS
Personal details run deep in Woody Allen’s films. His life has been fodder for his stories. Sometimes overt, occasionally self-indulgently, most always accompanied by some sort of neurosis his writing reveals much about who he is. “Wonder Wall,” however, may top everything that came before with its story of a man who carries on with both mother and stepdaughter.
Set on Coney Island in the 1950s, “Wonder Wheel” stars Jim Belushi as Humpty, a carousel operator with Kate Winslet as Ginny, his actress-turned-waitress wife. They live in a dowdy apartment with budding pyromaniac Richie (Jack Gore), her son from a previous marriage. It’s a miserable existence. He’s an unhappy recovering alcoholic who prefers fishing to his wife’s company. Approaching forty, she’s unhappily working at a local clam house, battling migraines caused by the endless din from the surrounding amusement parks. “I am not a waitress in a clam bar,” she says. “There’s more to me than that. I’m playing the part of a waitress in a clam bar.”
Ginny’s only consolation is lifeguard and wannabe playwright Mickey (Justin Timberlake). He’s “poetic by nature with hopes of one day writing a classic,” and she eats it up until Carolina (Juno Temple), Humpty’s estranged daughter shows up, on the run from some nasty mobsters (Steve Schirripa and Tony Sirico).
Woody Allen has made almost fifty films ranging from lush romantic comedies and introspective dramas to art-house explorations and musicals. “Wonder Wheel” feels like a combination of all of the above, and yet less because it feels as though it’s been cobbled together from fragments of his other, better movies. Nostalgia, over-romanticized sense of place, dangerous relationships, psychiatry and highbrow set decoration like references to “Hamlet and Oedipus” abound but it is all been-there-done-that.
Allen’s films once clocked in at a svelte 90 minutes but in recent years have grown flabby. “Wonder Wheel” times out at 101 minutes but feels much longer. The stagey, heightened acting style recalls amateur hour Tennessee Williams and seems not only stuck in time, but actually have the ability to stop time. As Humpty, Belushi only reminds us how good a role this might have been for John Goodman. Winslet seems to be channelling a heroine from a more interesting movie and Timberlake, as the movie’s in-demand love interest and Greek Chorus, shows none of the ease and grace so amply on display in his singing and dancing. Only Temple fights her way through the muck to emerge as a compelling character.
At the beginning of the film, Mickey warns us that what we are about to see will be filtered through his playwright’s point of view. Keeping that promise, Allen uses every amount of artifice at his disposal—including cinematographer Vittorio Storaro’s admittedly sumptuous photography—to create a film that is not only unreal but also unpleasant. “Oh God,” Ginny cries out at one point. “Spare me the bad drama.” Amen to that.