★★★★½ - STUFF
No disrespect to either John Lithgow or Brian Cox, but this is the Winston Churchill performance from the past year to you need to see.
Gary Oldman has already picked up a Golden Globe and it's hard to see anyone stopping him from adding a plethora of other gongs before the end of the current awards season. Sure he might be buried under layers of prosthetics, but this is a transformative performance from 59-year-old Brit that deserves all the accolades it can get.
Fortunately, Joe Wright's (Atonement, Anna Karenina) film is a cracker too.
Taking place over just a few weeks during the middle of 1940, Darkest Hour focuses on an early tipping point in the course of World War II. German troops are poised on the Belgian border, while the British parliament is in crisis.
Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain has resigned after what others described "years of inactivity and incompetence..which have left the country ruinously prepared to face the Nazi peril". Those charged with finding his replacement are required "to explore every angle", especially after first choice Viscount Halifax (Stephen Dillane) turns the post down.
With a Grand Coalition of parties in place, the options are quickly narrowed to one – Winston Churchill (Oldman). But not everyone is a fan of the bellicose, belligerent, hard-drinking and eating veteran ("an actor in love with the sound of his own voice," mutters one opponent, while King George damningly dismisses his credentials by saying, "even a stopped clock is right twice a day"). And, after all, Churchill had been one of the key decisionmakers during the disastrous Gallipoli campaign two decades earlier.
From the scene-setting newsreel footage to the crowdpleasing finale aboard the London Underground, Wright and New Plymouth-born screenwriter Anthony McCarten (The Theory of Everything) deliver gripping and engrossing drama, leavened by lashings of Churchillian humour. The pair's tight focus is a masterstroke, heightening the tension as Oldman's Winston discovers he has potentially more enemies within the British government than those battling his forces on foreign soil.
With plenty of witty bon mots and imperious bluster to spout and obstacles to overcome, Oldman is nothing short of compelling as chews out staff, fellow polticos and cigars in equal measure.
That he doesn't overwhelm the movie is thanks to a terrific supporting cast that also includes Kristin Scott Thomas, Lily James, Ben Mendelsohn and David Strathairn. Scott Thomas is a particular revelation, her Clemmy providing the film's more intimate moments as she helps reveal Churchill's softer side. "I don't want you to be disliked, you must try to be more kind," Clemmy counsels her husband.
With the battle to rescue troops from a certain French beach providing one of the key backdrops to the action, Darkest Hour is not only a terrific tale in its own right, but also a brilliant companion piece to Christopher Nolan's equally excellent Dunkirk.
- JAMES CROOT