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‘Darkest Hour’ is the Wright stuff

"Darkest Hour," which was directed by Joe Wright, opened on Christmas Day. Following the review of the film that I wrote for Spokane Public Radio:

When it comes to movies based on actual events, you’ll often hear a common refrain. It goes like this: In Hollywood, five of the most frightening words are “based on a true story.”

That’s an exaggeration, of course. Those five words are hardly scarier than, say, these two: Harvey Weinstein. And the point isn’t about fear anyway. It’s about relevance.

To most filmmakers, you see, truth is about as relevant to the movie they want to make as autocorrect is to a serial texter. If it doesn’t fit the filmmaker’s concept, truth just doesn’t matter.

Let me give you an example: In his Jack Reacher novels, writer Lee Child’s protagonist stands 6-feet-5 and weighs as much as 250 pounds. His size exemplifies his very essence. It’s what gives Reacher his all-important sense of authority.

Yet in the movie versions of Child’s novels, Reacher is played by Tom Cruise, who is – at best – 5-feet-9 and 160 pounds. So much for authority.

Reacher, of course, is a fictional character. Yet the same holds true for movies that are based on actual people or events. As with pretty much everything else about movie production, the casting of a biopic depends more on star power than accuracy (think of John Wayne as Genghis Khan).

Even when they do get the casting right – think of Jamie Foxx as Ray Charles – filmmakers feel more of an obligation to create dramatic impact than to follow anything close to what really happened.

Which, finally, brings us to “Darkest Hour,” Joe Wright’s film about Winston Churchill. Specifically, it’s about a short period – barely a month – in the political career of the former British Prime Minister, who is played by Gary Oldman – almost unrecognizable under makeup and prosthetics.

We watch as the outgoing prime minister, Neville Chamberlain – the man who capitulated to Adolf Hitler – decides to resign. We watch as the man no one seems to want, Churchill, is elevated to the position. And we watch as he fights to make everyone understand: There is to be no negotiating with Hitler. Why? Because, as Churchill declares, “You cannot reason with a Tiger when your head is in its mouth.”

It’s a familiar story. But Wright, as he did in his films “Atonement” and “Pride & Prejudice,” gives it a fresh feel. And his cast gives great performances, from Ben Mendelsohn as King George VI to Kristin Scott Thomas as Churchill’s wife Clemmie.

It is Oldman, though, who rules. As he did while portraying characters as diverse as punk-rocker Sid Vicious and the fictional spy George Smiley, Oldman again disappears into the role.

As to whether Wright’s film adheres to actual history, the answer there is that it adheres closely enough. It would be impossible to re-create everything as it literally happened. As just one example, Churchill’s actual speeches were written down, so they could be portrayed verbatim. Everyday conversation, though, has to be invented.

No, the trick is to make film feel as if it could be real. Which is exactly, benefitting from Oldman’s immense talent, what Wright is able to do.