Darkest Hour ***1/2

Bold visual style and a tremendous performance highlight this likely Oscar contender. 

Is it worth $10? Yes 

Gary Oldman has been a professional actor since 1982. In that time he’s played Dracula, Lee Harvey Oswald and Beethoven, among many others, and has earned one Oscar nomination for his work – for “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy” in 2011.

That’s about to change.

Oldman’s Winston Churchill in “Darkest Hour” is the stuff Best Actor Oscars are made of: He disappears under makeup and prosthetics to play a well-known historical figure. He has multiple monologues, chews scenery, and is always the center of attention. He is entirely convincing at all points, and gives a tremendous performance of an iconic figure who has previously been personified numerous times on screen. It’s too early to declare anyone an Oscar winner, but there’s little doubt Oldman will be a strong contender.

Director Joe Wright’s film, from Anthony McCarten’s (“The Theory of Everything”) original screenplay, follows Churchill in May 1940. It’s the month his entire political career has been building toward: King George VI (Ben Mendelsohn) names Churchill prime minister after Neville Chamberlain (Ronald Pickup) resigns, and later Churchill is forced to address the ongoing threat that is Adolf Hitler. Should the United Kingdom allow Italy to broker a peace treaty between the U.K. and Germany? Or should the U.K. fight until its last breath, adamant about never capitulating to its enemies?

History and hindsight say Churchill made the right decision, but Wright does a fine job of articulating the extensive, and potentially fatal, danger of going to war. What’s more, in both personal and professional ways Churchill is depicted as a stubborn and argumentative man whose conviction is vindicated by the results. The truth is, he could’ve (literally and figuratively) been dead wrong.

Meanwhile, members of Churchill’s own party conspire to get rid of him, particularly Viscount Halifax (Stephen Dillane). The intention is to increase the pressure on Churchill, but the result is a series of exhausting scenes that add tedium. Remember, we already know how this ends, and the “behind the scenes” elements of Churchill’s decision making are the film’s greatest appeal. A little dissension among the ranks is one thing, but this is too much.

Interestingly, one of the subplots concerns the evacuation of Dunkirk, which was superbly chronicled by Christopher Nolan earlier this year in “Dunkirk.” It’s easy to think of Nolan’s triptych as Churchill explains the unwinnable situation to his secretary (Lily James), which makes the two movies notably compatible prior to a potential awards season showdown.

Make no mistake, though, “Darkest Hour” more than stands on its own. The production design by Sarah Greenwood feels ripped from the history pages, Bruno Delbonnel’s cinematography is gorgeous, Dario Marianelli’s musical score is dramatic and impactful, and there are a number of impressive visual effects shots of dropping bombs.

A common criticism of director Joe Wright is that his films (“Atonement,” “Pan”) look tremendous but lack substance. He must’ve figured something out, as this is a thoughtful top-notch production that looks and feels almost exactly as it should.

Did you know?
Sir John Hurt was originally cast as Neville Chamberlain, but had to withdraw due to health issues. He didn’t shoot any scenes, and died while the film was in production.

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