Darkest Hour (2017) starring Gary Oldman, Lily James, Stephen Dillane, Ben Mendelsohn, & Kristin Scott-Thomas

WARNING: This review contains SPOILERS for the film.

Within days of becoming Prime Minister of Great Britain, Winston Churchill (Gary Oldman) must face one of his most turbulent and defining trials: exploring a negotiated peace treaty with Nazi Germany, or standing firm to fight for the ideals, liberty and freedom of a nation. As the unstoppable Nazi forces roll across Western Europe and the threat of invasion is imminent, and with an unprepared public, a skeptical King, and his own party plotting against him, Churchill must withstand his darkest hour, rally a nation, and attempt to change the course of world history.Synopsis from Focus Features

… we shall fight in France, we shall fight on the seas and oceans, we shall fight with growing confidence and growing strength in the air, we shall defend our island, whatever the cost may be, 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.

Let us therefore brace ourselves to our duties, and so bear ourselves, that if the British Empire and its Commonwealth last for a thousand years, men will still say, ‘This was their finest hour.’
–Excerpt from two of Churchill’s speech (before the Battle of Britain)

I saw this historical drama on SAT; it is part of Regal’s Oscar movie showcase (FEB 23-MAR 4). Darkest Hour (directed by Joe Wright) is very well-made w/ (I assume) great attention to period details. I esp. enjoyed the music (composed by Dario Marinelli). Gary Oldman is completely transformed; his Churchill is both intimidating, yet (somewhat) relatable in the quiet moments. It’s not just about the cigars, whiskey (champagne for lunch- FYI), and a quick temper. Churchill has doubts, many ideas (some that are unpalatable to his own party), a sense of humor, and- most of all- thinks that victory over the Nazis is possible. We know Oldman is capable of delving deep into each role; however, this takes him to another level!

Kristin Scott-Thomas (who has been working in France for many years) plays Clemmie, Churchill’s supportive (yet NOT a pushover) wife. It was nice to see her on the big screen after a long time. Another woman in this tale is a young typist, Elizabeth Layton (Lily James from Downton Abbey), who works closely w/ Churchill, though quite upset by their first meeting. Was this character based on a real woman? Or did the screenwriter create an (accessible) character to draw the viewer into the world of WWII-era British politics? I suspect it was a bit of both. Miss Layton is able to adjust to the (eccentric, sometimes insensitive) ways of her employer, who becomes Prime Minister (May 1940) at the start of the film. James does a fine job, able to keep a stiff-upper lip (as was expected in that world), yet also expressing strong (yet controlled) emotion in few key scenes.

Churchill keeps his “enemies” in his cabinet, including former PM Neville Chamberlain (considered a coward by many) and Viscount Halifax (Stephen Dillane from Game of Thrones). Halifax, who turned down the PM job before Churchill was chosen, wants to negotiate some sort of peace w/ the Germans (if possible). Of course, Churchill can’t stomach that idea; he has trouble even saying the name “Hitler” when required. The PM’s speeches and radio broadcasts helped inspire British resistance, especially during the difficult days of 1940–1941.

I was very impressed by Ben Mendelsohn (who plays King George V); he hails from Australia and has been receiving critical acclaim after breaking into Hollywood in middle-age. Check him out in S1 of Bloodline (Netflix) or in Rogue One (a prequel to Star Wars), if you haven’t already. Not only does Mendelsohn get the unlikely king’s (subtle) stutter right, his mannerisms and expressions seem pitch-perfect for a man deeply concerned about his nation (yet unable to express his feelings). At first, he is “a bit scared” of Churchill (FYI: He supported Edward’s marriage to Wallis Simpson), though the men become allies in time. Any man whose name frightens Hitler is worth his support, King George explains to Churchill.


Familiar by Danai Gurira (Wooly Mammoth Theatre)

Familiar is written by Tony-nominated playwright Danai Gurira (who was born in the US, but raised many years in Zimbabwe). She can be seen in the newest Marvel movie- Black Panther.  (Listen to a recent NPR interview w/ Gurira here: https://www.npr.org/2018/02/17/586172340/danai-gurira-on-her-black-panther-role-she-protects-what-we-would-have-been). Familiar is Wooly’s entry into the Women’s Voices Theater Festival. The play is directed by Theater J artistic director, Adam Immerwahr (one of Gurira’s long-time collaborators).

Donald (Kim Sullivan), a low-key lawyer and partner in his firm, and his high-strung scientist wife, Marvelous (Inga Ballard), are getting ready for the wedding of their older daughter, Tendi (Sharina Martin). Their younger daughter, Nyasha (Shannon Dorsey- I’ve seen her in All the Way and Octoroon), has recently returned from Zimbabwe, and is full of excitement and stories. Unlike religious/straight-laced lawyer Tendi, the much younger Nyasha is a free-spirited musician still finding herself. (Nyasha reminded me of Beneatha Younger, the idealistic/Afrocentric college girl from A Raisin in the Sun by Lorraine Hansberry.) 

Two sisters of Marvelous have come over for the wedding: Margaret (Twinkle Burke)- an adjunct professor who loves wine and Anne (Cheryl Lynn Bruce)- a traditional woman (who stayed behind in the old country). Tendi invited Anne to help w/ the roora (bride price) ceremony, despite the fact that she and her mother don’t get along. Marvelous is shocked, as she does NOT approve of roora. However, Tendi and her white fiance/nonprofit worker, Chris (Drew Kopas), want to honor the elders in this way. It turns out that Chris needs a go-between for the ceremony, so he brings in his younger brother/former soldier, Brad (Andy Truschinski). Misunderstandings, sibling rivalries, hurt feelings, secrets, and a LOT of hilarity ensues! 

I was lucky enough to get tickets (online) to see this play on a pay-what-you-can performance. I don’t think I’ve laughed this hard in the theater before! It’s NOT just about jokes, there are some VERY touching moments (some of which grow out of a long-hidden family secret). I highly recommend it to anyone in the DC area; it’s playing until SUN, MAR 11th (https://www.woollymammoth.net/event/familiar).

The Post (2017) starring Tom Hanks & Meryl Streep

WARNING: This review contains MILD SPOILERS for the film.

When American military analyst, Daniel Ellsberg, realizes to his disgust the depths of the US government’s deceptions about the futility of the Vietnam War, he takes action by copying top-secret documents that would become the Pentagon Papers. Later, Washington Post owner, Kay Graham, is still adjusting to taking over her late husband’s business when editor Ben Bradlee discovers the New York Times has scooped them with an explosive expose on those papers. Determined to compete, Post reporters find Ellsberg himself and a complete copy of those papers. However, the Post’s plans to publish their findings are put in jeopardy with a Federal restraining order that could get them all indicted for Contempt. Now, Kay Graham must decide whether to back down for the safety of her paper or publish and fight for the Freedom of the Press. In doing so, Graham and her staff join a fight that would have America’s democratic ideals in the balance. -IMDB summary

This tightly edited/well-acted historical drama (directed by Spielberg) is a MUST-SEE for our (politically troubled) times! Spielberg wanted to have his film released as quickly as possible given the parallels between its theme and the burgeoning political “fake news” climate in the U.S. According to Streep, the physical shoot started in May 2017 and finished at the end of July and Spielberg had it cut two weeks later. The film went from script to final cut in a modest 9 mos.

Tom Hanks (WaPo editor Ben Bradlee) and Meryl Streep (newspaper owner Katharine Graham) are the main draws here, BUT there are also chances for (younger/less famous) actors to shine. You will some fine moments featuring Matthew Rhys (Daniel Ellsberg), Alison Brie (star of GLOW), Jessie Plemons (most recently on Black Mirror), and Sarah Paulson (who plays the supportive wife of Bradlee). As I heard on NPR, this movie doesn’t get into the fact that Bradlee actually had 3 marriages which were far from ideal.  

At times, Graham is unsure of what steps to take w/ regards to the future of her paper (which was losing money). She is a woman in a man’s world, who didn’t have to work until she suddenly became a widow in middle-age. Her trusted ally is her long-time attorney, Fritz Beebe (actor/writer Tracy Letts); he is a male ally (though they wouldn’t have used this term in the late ’60s). Beebe helps Graham stands up to Arthur Parsons (Bradley Whitford), who thinks she’s NOT the right person to head the paper.

Can journos be friends w/ politicians? Hmmm, it’s NOT such a good idea, as BOTH Bradlee and Graham come to realize. Bradlee knows that he was TOO close to the Kennedys (personally), so got the kinds of access that other newsmen wouldn’t have. Graham’s long-time friendship w/ former Secretary of State Robert McNamara (Bruce Greenwood) is tested, BUT she doesn’t let him intimidate her into being silent. Ben Bagdikian (Bod Odenkirk) provides some of the humor in the movie; he is a dogged senior reporter who tracks down Ellsberg.