In his life, Gary Oldman has been nominated for precisely one Academy Award, for 2011’s Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy. It’s a travesty, given Oldman’s uncanny, chameleon-like ability to disappear into a role, whether it’s as Sid Vicious, Dracula, or Sirius Black. And that talent has never been on display more than it is in Joe Wright’s enthralling new World War II epic, Darkest Hour.

Taking place over the course of less than a month, in May 1940, the film chronicles the events surrounding Winston Churchill’s appointment as the new British Prime Minister in the midst of Hitler’s rise to power. And as yawn-inducing as that may seem, coupled with the fact that Darkest Hour is more dialogue-driven than perhaps any movie in recent memory, you may think a hard pass would be entirely justified.

But you would be wrong. It’s not only compelling and undeniably fascinating, it’s as fine an acting showcase as you’re apt to see. Oldman could have very easily resorted to a dime-store impersonation of Churchill, mimicking his speech and just hiding beneath the extensive prosthetics that make you completely forget you’re even watching Oldman in the first place. (Kudos to the amazing makeup artist Kazuhiro Tsuji, whom Oldman coaxed out of retirement to participate in this movie.) Instead, Oldman quite simply becomes Churchill. From the persistent cigar-gnawing to the mumbly speech to the crusty temperament, it’s the performance of the year and is already the near-unanimous choice for this year’s Best Actor Oscar.

The movie unfolds on May 9, 1940, in the final throes of Neville Chamberlain’s time as Prime Minister. Parliament is in a tizzy trying to find a replacement, and eventually the decision is made to tap Churchill for the job. Hitler has already invaded parts of Europe, and most of Britain fears it’s just a matter of time before the Nazis make their way across the Channel. Some in Churchill’s War Cabinet, including Lord Halifax (Stephen Dillane) and Chamberlain (Ronald Pickup) himself, are urging the Prime Minister to consider peace talks with Hitler; Churchill adamantly refuses.

At the same time, the entire British army is trapped on the shores of France (perhaps a double-feature alongside Christopher Nolan’s outstanding Dunkirkwould be in order?), and Churchill has to figure a way to bring them back home. Plus, he’s barely a week into the job and is already butting heads with King George (Ben Mendelsohn).

Director Joe Wright (AtonementHanna), working from The Theory of Everythingscribe Anthony McCarten’s stellar script (despite a somewhat schlocky moment when Churchill goes out among the “common folk” on the subway), takes a very straightforward history lesson and turns it into a wildly interesting and beautifully shot masterpiece. With the help of cinematographer Bruno Delbonnel (Inside Llewyn Davis), the film is as much a visual treat as it is a cerebral one, breathing heaps of life into what, on paper, is little more than two hours of people sitting in rooms talking.


5/5 stars