He plays Winston Churchill, but if you didn’t already know the actor behind the mask was Gary Oldman, you’d never guess it was him storming his way through the World War II drama “Darkest Hour.” Oldman — no stranger to real-life portrayals (Lee Harvey Oswald in “JFK,” and Sid Vicious in “Sid and Nancy”) — plays the iconic British Bulldog with gusto, glee and oodles of pathos. Outfitted with prosthetics and extra-padding, Oldman so totally disappears into the rotund role that it is no wonder he’s in the race for this year’s Best Actor Oscar. Like Churchill himself, Oldman will be hard to beat.
Director Joe Wright (“Atonement”), working from a script by Anthony McCarten (“The Theory of Everything”), engineers a tense and tidy retelling of Churchill’s defiant stand against the Third Reich in the early days of his tenure as prime minister. The audience I saw the film with delivered applause at the end, as if Batman just defeated the Joker.
The movie starts out on May 10, 1940, and runs through May 28. Churchill is the newly elected British prime minister, taking over for Neville Chamberlain (Ronald Pickup) and facing the challenge of whether to broker a peace treaty with Adolf Hitler or stand ground and not negotiate with terrorists — so to speak. The action takes place in the dark days (hence the title) leading up to the evacuation and rescue of 300,000 troops from the shores of Dunkirk. The situation is grim.
What’s even more bleak is how the film resonates in this era of political turmoil. How refreshing it is to see a portrait of a leader devoted to his responsibilities and steadfast in his beliefs. In one pivotal — and wonderful — scene, Churchill meets Londoners on the subway and asks them about Hitler. He’s an aristocrat out of water, but the point is to show his willingness to let the people guide him.
“Darkest Hour” also benefits from a strong supporting cast that includes Stephen Dillane as foreign secretary Halifax, Churchill’s main adversary, and biggest pusher of the possibility of negotiated peace settlement. Oldman also shares a few dynamic scenes with Ben Mendelsohn’s King George VI — the same part that won Colin Firth the Oscar in “The King’s Speech.”
Oldman plays Churchill with a commanding presence and undeterred humanity. It’s a full-throttle performance that becomes even more intense as the layers of McCarten’s script are peeled back and we see the PM at his most vulnerable. Wright doesn’t shy away from reminding us of Churchill’s many failures and foibles, namely the bloody Gallipoli disaster of 1915. In fact, it’s anything but a hagiography. On full display is Churchill’s reputation as a primadona, never far from his cigar or brandy. He scolds secretary (Lily James, radiant) for something as innocuous as single-spacing. Clementine, his wife (Kristin Scott Thomas) is the only one to tame the beast, endearingly telling her husband he’s too “rough, sarcastic, overbearing and rude.”
However, with Nazi tyranny threatening the world, the British citizenry is fortunate to have Churchill in charge at 10 Downing St. His mastery of language and knack for oration would mitigate any transgressions. Words are his weapons — and he fires them at will, especially uniting Britain to embrace a can-do spirit and display their grit. In a rousing speech, which Oldman captures all the requisite thundering, Churchill defiantly bellows: “Failure is not fatal: It is the courage to continue that counts.”
It’s been a good run for British World War II dramas. “Darkest Hour” would make a terrific middle of a triple bill with “Dunkirk” and “Their Finest,” both which came out earlier this year.
— Dana Barbuto may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow her on Twitter @dbarbuto_Ledger.
Cast: Gary Oldman, Kristin Scott Thomas, Lily James, Ben Mendelsohn.
(PG-13 for thematic material)