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Why Darkest Hour makes for a powerful companion piece to Dunkirk


War is about to begin on the 12th of January when World War II drama Darkest Hour arrives in Cineworld.

Directed by Atonement filmmaker Joe Wright, the film dramatises Winston Churchill’s (portrayed by Gary Oldman) historic decision whether or not to negotiate with Adolf Hitler or continue fighting, as German forces surrounded Allied soldiers on the beaches of Dunkirk in northern France. 

Darkest Hour is being hailed as a powerful and compelling drama that’s set to kickstart 2018’s film season, with Oldman being tipped for his very first Oscar. Some of you may be thinking that we've seen these events dramatised before and you wouldn’t be wrong. It was only in July this year when Christopher Nolan took us to the beaches of WWII France in his groundbreaking masterpiece, Dunkirk.

Don’t think that Darkest Hour will simply be repeating what we saw in Dunkirk, however. Here's why it will make the perfect companion piece...

It tells the other side of the story

Part of what made Dunkirk so gripping was that Nolan threw audiences straight into the action of the stranded troops. Told from the perspective of soldiers on the ground, pilots above, and civilians sailing across the Channel, Nolan’s war epic perfectly encapsulated the sense of uncertainty and dread that must have been felt by those caught up in the chaos.

Darkest Hour, on the other hand, takes the action back across the English Channel to Westminster to tell the other side of the story. It focuses on the dilemma faced by Churchill, with mounting pressure from his peers to make a decision that would ultimately decide the fate of Britain and Western Europe. Wright's movie will fill in the missing gaps left by Dunkirk to give us a better understanding of the harrowing events that unfolded.

Consequently, we can’t wait to see how this other method of storytelling will be able to bring to life the drama and tension that gripped the entirety of Western Europe during the Battle of Dunkirk between 26th May and 4th June 1940.

It's a different take on the same events

Nolan’s Dunkirk was by all means an intense war film: the menacing sounds of the German bombers and ear-shattering gunfire were terrifying. Nolan gave us a masterclass in how to deliver an effective war drama by focusing on characters’ emotions rather than graphically depicting bloodshed.

As we’ll see in January, however, Nolan’s retelling of this historic event isn’t the only way. Like its title suggests, Darkest Hour also tackles the Dunkirk conflict, but it’s nothing like Nolan’s film. Swapping the battlefield for Parliament and gunfire for politics, Darkest Hour is a historic biopic first and a war film second.

Much of the movie takes place in and around Churchill's cabinet assembly and the corridors of power, with Oldman leading an excellent cast including Kristin Scott Thomas as his wife Clementine and Ben Mendelsohn as King George VI. As we can see from the trailer the movie dramatises the British leader's famous "We shall never surrender" speech – in Oldman's hands this verbal attack promises to hold just as much power as Nolan's epic staging of the aerial, sea and land battle sequences.

Joe Wright is a dab hand at eliciting strong performances out of actors – his movie Atonement (which, coincidentally, also dramatised the Dunkirk conflict to extraordinary effect) got Keira Knightley an Oscar nomination, and he's also worked with the likes of Saoirse Ronan (Hanna) and Jamie Foxx (The Soloist).

This is an actor's showcase

Intriguingly, Dunkirk wasn't built around a core character or actor. Sure, we were all talking about Harry Styles' surprisingly excellent turn as a paranoid soldier, and there was strong support from Tom Hardy, Mark Rylance, Kenneth Branagh and Cillian Murphy. But could the movie be said to belong to any of them? Not really.

Darkest Hour by contrast is built around Oldman's volcanic charisma – long renowned for playing cranks and psychos such films as True Romance and Leon, in recent years he's channelled his intensity into noble roles in Nolan's Dark Knight trilogy. Even so, his quite literally unrecognisable turn as Churchill may be his finest performance so far.

"The challenge, obviously, apart from, as you say, taking on the guy – such an iconic figure, so quoted, so misquoted... that was something itself to wrap your head around," he tells Cinemablend. "The physical was a big thing, because you only need to look at me and look at Winston Churchill. So that was paramount. I found a guy who I knew, Kazuhiro Tsuji, who was a makeup artist and retired from movies and went into fine art. And so I was lucky enough to lure him back and drag him out of retirement to work. And together we worked on finding my Churchill -- sort of 'Gary meets Churchill.'"

Given Oldman has a reputation for being one of the most transformative actors in the business, to hear he's stepped up his chameleonic method is very exciting indeed, and the results clearly speak for themselves. He's only been Oscar-nominated once before, for 2011's Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, and with the ecstatic reviews that have greeted his Churchill portrayal he could well be holding his first award aloft next March.

Whilst Darkest Hour's narrative may be built around one particular actor, like Dunkirk, this is a story about heroes. But this time the hero is the leader of the British political establishment, rather than a soldier in the thick of the conflict.

Both movies can be watched back to back

Dunkirk is scheduled for home release on 18th December in time for Christmas, and many of us will no doubt see it in our possession less than a month before Darkest Hour lands in cinemas.

This means we’ve got plenty of time to re-watch Dunkirk over the Christmas holidays so that it’ll be fresh in our minds for January. Why not get the whole family round to watch it? You might even convince them to see Darkest Hour with you too.

Darkest Hour is released on 12th January – check out the trailer below.

Andy Murray is a writer who blogs for Cineworld as part of our news team.

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