Darkest Hour lights a pretty good cigar on Blu-ray .
The Production: 3.5/5
Darkest Hour is a solid film, and one that is almost certain to finally land Gary Oldman a Best Actor Academy Award a week from Sunday. The latest drama from director Joe Wright, the movie covers the first month of Winston Churchill’s service as Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, during the moments of greatest peril of World War II in 1940. Gary Oldman almost completely disappears into the role of Churchill, with a little help from an astonishing makeup job by artist Kazuhiro Tzuji. Unlike Wright’s more conceptual stretches with his last two films, Anna Karenina and Pan, this one is a return to simplicity – a linear story about a potentially divisive time in Britain when it most needed to come together. As a dramatic film, Darkest Hour runs a little slow at times, but there’s a richness of detail that satisfies throughout – from the costumes to the sets to, again, Oldman’s mesmerizing performance. This is an easy film to Recommend for purchase, particularly for those who’d like to hang onto an award-winning portrayal of Churchill in action.
SPOILERS: The early days of Churchill’s rise to the PM office were certainly not happy ones for Great Britain or anywhere else in the world. At that time, in 1940, Nazi Germany was on the offensive in Europe, America was still emerging from the Great Depression and had not officially entered the conflict, and England felt very much without any support to fight off an inevitable German invasion. Stories of the “Greatest Generation” aside, this was a miserable period of time for the world, particularly in the uncertainty of how things were going to turn out with the Nazis.
MORE SPOILERS: So it is in this milieu that Joe Wright’s film tells its tale. In the midst of the potential military carnage, the movie begins with an act of political carnage – the revolt of Parliament against falling Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain. As the politicians and the audience note, Winston Churchill is conspicuously absent during this moment in the House. The movie chooses to wait to introduce him until we have been primed a bit more. To accomplish that, Joe Wright establishes the routine at the Churchill household, including a hearty fried breakfast sizzling in front of the camera and the requisite scotch and soda being prepared to accompany it. By the time we’ve climbed the stairs with Churchill’s trembling new secretary, Elizabeth Layton (Lily James), several minutes of the movie have gone by and while we’ve heard everyone talk about Churchill throughout, we have not seen him yet. Until the next moment, when the match lights the cigar in the darkness – giving Gary Oldman’s Churchill an indelible, theatrical entrance into the film. Within seconds, Oldman takes over the movie and begins blasting away as Churchill, railing at his household and his foes in Parliament alike. Oldman pretty well disappears into Churchill’s mannerisms of his walk and his cigars – but he also repeatedly finds places to show empathy and humanity – an important step given how all the political characters in the movie are repeatedly aligned against him.
EVEN MORE SPOILERS: The central plot of Darkest Hour really has to do with Churchill’s refusal to appease the Nazis as his predecessor Chamberlain did, even in the face of the imminent doom facing hundreds of thousands of British troops trapped on the beaches at Dunkirk. The movie repeatedly circles around Churchill trying to find a military solution that can get the men out and protect Britain when he cannot get any actual support from the Americans or even from his opponents in the British government. In desperation, he turns to the notion of having British civilians provide their boats to at least have some kind of transport from Dunkirk. Things progressively get worse for the nation and for Churchill until the impending potential invasion of Britain provides him with unexpected allies. The first of these is King George VI (Ben Mendelsohn), who pays Churchill a surprise visit and agrees to support continued war mobilization rather than appeasement. The second of these comes in a fanciful sequence where Churchill leaves his limousine to ride the Tube to Parliament and spends a few minutes in the company of common English citizens, who all urge him to fight the Nazis. With that support in hand, Churchill is bolstered enough to return to the House of Commons and deliver his most iconic speech, where he promises “we shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills; we shall never surrender.” And in that speech, Gary Oldman completes his remarkable representation of Churchill – even if his rendering of the final few words has a lot more Gary Oldman than Winston Churchill in its enthusiasm…
FINAL SPOILERS: It’s important to think of Darkest Hour as more of a chamber drama than an epic period evocation of Churchill or Britain in 1940. The most important moments of the film take place in small rooms, with Churchill and his wife Clementine (Kristin Scott Thomas), or with Churchill’s cat-and-mouse ploys with Chamberlain (Ronald Pickup) and Lord Halifax (Stephen Dillane, employing the same cold disdain he oozed as Stannis Baratheon on Game of Thrones). In a sense, this film can be seen as the first part of a triptych of World War II stories released in Awards season for 2017. For Darkest Hour, we have the strategy being set for the Dunkirk evacuation, something we really only see from the 10,000 foot view and from the perspective of the politicians at home trying to get something done. And again, that’s a story of intense conversations in mostly quiet rooms. (Of course, the House of Commons provides a few louder moments, but that’s not quite the same thing as a wartime combat site…) For Dunkirk, we have an epic depiction of how that evacuation was carried out, from the perspectives of the beaches, the ships on the sea and the planes in the air. And for Mudbound, we have one thread of the story following two American soldiers into the European theater of World War II and then back home again where we see the aftermath.
SPOILERS NOW DONE. IT’S SAFE TO READ FROM HERE FORWARD: Darkest Hour is a solid, if slow, depiction of Churchill’s dramatic first steps in the office of Prime Minister, and a great showcase for the acting talents of Gary Oldman. The Blu-ray of this film, due to be released next week, presents the film in fine picture and sound quality, including a nearly inexplicable Dolby Atmos mix. Special features include Joe Wright’s usual solid commentary and a pair of featurettes about the production. The DVD edition of the movie is included in the packaging. On the strength of Gary Oldman’s performance alone, I would Recommend this Blu-ray for purchase. Add to that another great Joe Wright commentary and the Recommendation gets even easier.
3D Rating: NA
Darkest Hour is presented in a 1:85:1 1080p AVC transfer (@ an average of 33 mbps) that is effective both in what it shows and what it does NOT show. On the one hand, the transfer reveals plenty of fine detail in clothing, locations, sets and props. The dark and smoky atmosphere of the House of Commons actually has plenty of detail in the blacks, so that those scenes have a feeling of richness rather than blurring into a general darkness. On the other hand, the transfer does not show the seams of the heavy prosthetic makeup applied to Gary Oldman. (I’m told that in 4K, these seams start to show a bit more.)
Darkest Hour is presented in an English Dolby Atmos track, which can downconvert to a Dolby True HD 7.1 track (@ an average 3.6 mbps, but dialing up to 6.0 mbps in the bigger scenes). This is a great, clean audio track, but I’m honestly at a loss as to why an Atmos track is being provided for a chamber drama. To my ear, the one place where the track really winds up getting its greatest use (aside from a few glimpses of combat) is in the House of Commons, where the voices of politicians fill all the speakers. A French Dolby Digital 5.1 track is on the disc, as is a Spanish Dolby Digital Plus 7.1 track. (Yes, you read that correctly – they put a Dolby Digital Plus track on in Spanish. I haven’t seen one of those in years…)
Special Features: 3/5
Darkest Hour comes with three special features: two short featurettes, and one great commentary.
Commentary with Director Joe Wright – Joe Wright provides his latest thorough scene-specific commentary, giving a guided tour of his production. He covers a heck of a lot of ground here, including the hours of makeup time it took to transform Gary Oldman into Churchill. Wright notes that a big part of the makeup was designed to keep Oldman’s upper face clear of prosthetics, which is a major part of the way Oldman is able to emanate such humanity throughout. Wright discusses the fictional Tube conversation, noting that the real Churchill was known for appearing in public (weeping at times) and that he regularly consulted any sources he could get to understand what the common citizens were thinking. In the final moments of the movie, in the House of Commons, Wright happily discusses a moment that many readers may have seen on YouTube at some point: whilst waiting for Gary Oldman to make his entrance, Wright led the hundreds of extras playing the MPs in a group rendition of “Hey Jude”, so that Oldman arrived into a tumultuous chorus of singing and waving as the kickoff for his biggest speech of the film.
Into Darkest Hour (8:16, 1080p) – This is a short general introduction to the production, with quick soundbites coming from the cast, the producers, Joe Wright and from Makeup/Hair Supervisor Ivana Primarac, Costume Designer Jaqueline Durran (who justifiably won an Academy Award for 2012’s Anna Karenina for Wright), Production Designer Sarah Greenwood and Historic Advisor Phil Reed. Given how many people are participating, there isn’t much time for anything other than soundbites, glimpses of on-set video, and clips from the movie. One really wishes they could have taken a little more time with this, to be honest.
Gary Oldman: Becoming Churchill (4:19, 1080p) – This short featurette covers Gary Oldman’s performance as Churchill. There are some fun moments here, particularly with Oldman saying his reaction to the offer to play Churchill was “I laughed my leg off”, while Wright and the film’s screenwriter Anthony McCarten accurately describe Oldman as a “shapeshifter”. A little time is spent with Makeup Artist Kazuhiro Tsuji, but not enough to really convey the process of making Oldman over into Churchill. This is again a featurette that needed to be longer – in particular to show how that transformation worked, as many other BTS featurettes have done in the past.
DVD Edition – The DVD edition is included in the packaging. It carries the movie in an anamorphic 1.85:1 transfer and Dolby Digital 5.1 sound (@ 448kbps) in English, French and Spanish. The commentary and the two featurettes are carried over, in standard definition, of course.
Digital Copy – Instructions for obtaining a digital copy of the season are available on an insert in the packaging.
The movie and special features are subtitled in English, French and Spanish. The usual pop-up menus are present.
Darkest Hour is a solid, if somewhat slow, depiction of the turbulent early days of Winston Churchill’s time as Prime Minister of the United Kingdom. For director Joe Wright, this is a welcome return to simple dramatic storytelling. For lead actor Gary Oldman, this is an opportunity for a tour de force as he transforms into Winston Churchill before our eyes. The Blu-ray offers fine picture and even, inexplicably, a Dolby Atmos sound mix, in addition to a fine new commentary by Joe Wright. This Blu-ray is Recommended for Purchase.