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With ‘Dunkirk’ and ‘Darkest Hour’ Showing Strong, Will Churchill-Heavy Britpics Storm the Oscars?

Over tea at a TIFF afterparty, "Dunkirk" director Christopher Nolan asked: "And how is 'Darkest Hour'?" 

“Darkest Hour”

Focus Features

Two British movies; two endings that feature the same iconic Winston Churchill speech. Which one will dominate the Oscar conversation?

Not to be left out of the Oscar campaign opportunities at the Toronto International Film Festival, Christopher Nolan capitalized on a chance to project his summer blockbuster “Dunkirk” at the world’s original IMAX, Toronto’s restored Cinesphere.  Afterward, he said the movie never looked so good — it was one of 35 70 mm IMAX prints. From my perspective, it was sublime, clear, crisp, and even more emotional than the first time I saw it at Universal CityWalk (one of Nolan’s favorite 70 mm IMAX venues, along with the Metreon in San Francisco and Lincoln Square in New York).

Over tea at an afterparty, Nolan asked: “And how is ‘Darkest Hour’?”

The films are complementary: one is an immersive, almost-silent action epic that brilliantly toys with three disjunctive time frames. (During the Q&A with TIFF artistic director Cameron Bailey, Nolan admitted that he said “fuck it” when it came to the risk of disorienting the audience.)

On the other hand, Working Title’s “Darkest Hour,” which I saw at Telluride, is a series of talky dramatic sequences in which new Prime Minister Churchill (Gary Oldman), supported by his wife (Kristin Scott Thomas), must take on the fight against the Nazis who are swiftly conquering Europe and cornering some 400,000 Allied forces in Dunkirk. His party wants him to start peace talks. He has to figure out how to turn around his country and its pacifist Parliament to fight back and push to victory against the Nazis.

“Dunkirk”

Melinda Sue Gordon

It’s a lonely journey. King George VI (Ben Mendelsohn) doesn’t trust him — really no one does, as the rumpled PM nurses scotch through each day. Screenwriter Anthony McCarten (“The Theory of Everything”), director Joe Wright (who delivered a stunning single take of the beach at Dunkirk in “Atonement”), and Oldman (who has only been nominated once, for “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy”) turn what could have been a wordy chamber drama into something viscerally compelling and far more timely than anyone anticipated.

The film represents an Academy sweet spot; much like “The King’s Speech,” or “Ghandi,” it’s a literate historical drama with visual panache. It’s up to Focus Features — a new management distribution and marketing team, unproven with Oscars — to take this through the finish line.

While “Dunkirk” represents another Oscar favorite, the epic, it’s more radical. Warner Bros. worried it might not be commercial, which wasn’t necessary: The $100 million movie has earned $491 million worldwide to date. “Dunkirk” also defies convention by relying on a sprawling ensemble in which no actor dominates, although newcomer Fionn Whitehead and supporting veterans Tom Hardy, Mark Rylance, and Kenneth Branagh all carry enormous emotion. “Nobody works with a mask like Tom Hardy,” said Nolan, who knew the actor could draw in the audience with sometimes no more than one eye. Nolan will finally land the Best Director nomination, and the picture could win multiple awards through the crafts as well as Best Picture.

Judi Dench victoria and abdul

“Victoria and Abdul”

Screenshot/Focus Features

Also joining the fray is another Focus title, real-life royal dramedy “Victoria & Abdul.” Directed by Stephen Frears (“The Queen”), this charming film relies on the considerable charms of Dame Judi Dench as aged and corpulent Queen Victoria. She’s lifted out of bed every day, corseted, dressed, and put through the motions of official functions where stuffing her face with yummy food is her only pleasure — until she meets Abdul (Ali Fazal), an Indian tax clerk chosen to present a trophy to her in England.

He dares to make eye contact and strikes up what becomes a deep and lasting friendship, disconcerting her spoiled son Bertie (Eddie Izzard) and her retainers, who are basically waiting for her to die. She is made of stern stuff and as written by “Billy Elliott” writer Lee Hall, delivers a great speech that should yield her an Oscar nomination, even during a competitive year for actresses.

The movie has been criticized for telling more of Victoria’s story than Abdul’s. I was moved by their romance. At a Toronto cocktail party, Dench, who is 82, admitted to me that all she had to do was find the universality in people who survive as their friends die around them; she has lost seven people close to her in the past year, including her brother Peter. Academy voters still lean into the senior demo, despite recent younger and more diverse additions to their ranks; I predict they will relate.

"Breathe" Andrew Garfield

Breathe

Another actors’ vehicle is Andy Serkis’ well-directed drama “Breathe,” about real-life polio survivor Robin Cavendish (Andrew Garfield), who thanks to his clever wife (“The Crown” star Claire Foy) and a group of loyal and inventive friends lived to age 64 and revolutionized the standards of what was possible for polio victims.

Garfield is extraordinary in a role that will be inevitably compared to Eddie Redmayne in “Theory of Everything.” Foy is strong but Garfield has the juicier part. He brings sweet humanity and British pluck to this performance. Arthouse Anglophiles may well be the target audience for this well-mounted period drama, but as we know, many of them are Academy voters.

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