Gary Oldman is one of the greatest actors on the planet – and he proves it again as Winston Churchill in Darkest Hour, director Joe Wright's rip-roaring take on the celebrated Prime Minister's first tumultuous month in office in May, 1940, when France and Belgium are a whisper away from surrendering to Hitler and Great Britain may be next. (How I'd love to see Oldman's take on the Fuhrer).
The British actor, 59, has played real people before, from Sid Vicious (Sid and Nancy) to Lee Harvey Oswald (JFK). But his Churchill is something different. At first, the slender chameleon is barely recognizable in his fat suit and buried under layers of artful, award-caliber makeup, courtesy of Japanese craftsman Kazuhiro Tsuji. But then something magical happens, like it does when the gods of cinema align. Those flashing eyes, brimming with mischief, are unmistakenly Oldman's, and his vocal technique rises to the challenge of capturing one of the most eloquent, inspiring voices in history without indulging in mere mimicry. In his 35-year-film career, Oldman has only received one nomination from the Academy, for playing master spy George Smiley in 2011's Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy. This will surely end that oversight. Get busy engraving Oldman's name on an Oscar right bloody now.
And those fearing that Darkest Hour is nothing but a dull tableau of blowhard stuffed shirts will be relieved to know that they're in for a lively, provocative historical drama that runs on its own nonstop creative fire. Wright introduces us to the great man lighting a cigar in bed – but from then on, the hard-drinking Churchill is on his feet and demanding attention like the brawling infant he resembles. Whether he's terrorizing a timid, young typist (Lily James) or grumbling at criticism doled out by his loyal, impatient wife, Clementine (a sublimely tart Kristin Scott Thomas), Churchill, at 66, is a lion who's definitely not ready for winter.
Working from a scrappy, dialogue-heavy script by Anthony McCarten (The Theory of Everything), Wright brings a cinematic dynamism to every scene, even when confined to Churchill's chambers, underground war rooms and the halls of Parliament. That's where Churchill squeaks by as a compromise candidate, one who's hated only slightly less than his Hitler-appeasing predecessor Neville Chamberlain (Ronald Pickup). Though the evacuation of British soldiers on the beaches of Dunkirk will change the course of the war, no one knew that for sure … especially Churchill, who often hid his uncertainty in alcohol and a haze of cigar smoke. We see almost nothing of the Operation Dynamo action, which makes Christopher Nolan's acclaimed Dunkirk the perfect companion piece to Wright's interior drama. (Oldman recently joked that Nolan's epic was "the most expensive second unit" in film history. Ironically, both films will be vying against each other for awards this season.)
Wright has been much praised for bringing a modern energy to period pieces (Pride & Prejudice, Atonement), and he animates the hothouse atmosphere of Churchill's gilded cage with thoughtful debate and vigorous visuals. Cinematographer Bruno Delbonnel (Amelie, Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince) keeps his camera in a constant whirl, marching in time to a thrilling score by Dario Marianelli. The Prime Minsiter's instinct to refuse peace talks with Germany brokered by Mussolini doesn't sit well at first with King George (Ben Mendelsohn, in the same role that won Colin Firth an Oscar in The King's Speech). But the unthinkable idea of an English regent in exile in Canada brings the two men closer together. The film falters slightly during an imagined scene in which Churchill sneaks off for a ride on the London underground and talks policy with a melting pot of commoners. But this distillation of London pride, of the king's subjects shouting "Never!" to the possibility of seeing a Nazi flag flying over Buckingham Palace, is essential to Churchill's insistence on war.
Oldman delivers Churchill's famous radio speech (“We shall fight them on the beaches") with all the rhetorical thunder it requires. But this consummate actor is arguably at his very best when he shows us the politician at his most vulnerable, backed against the wall and thwarted by those outside and inside his own inner circle. John Lithgow won an Emmy for playing Churchill in The Crown; the formidable Brian Cox and Michael Gambon joined the recent run of interpretations of the PM. Still, it's Oldman, whose performance as Churchill feels definitive, revealing a fearsome, sometimes fearful man racked by self doubts and still able to find the conviction to rally his nation, and countless nations to come, to fight against living under the heel of tyranny. The victory of Darkest Hour as a film is not just to hear those word repeated, but to discover the flawed human being who carved those words out of the dark night of his own soul.