This film certainly isn’t the “Darkest Hour” for actor Gary Oldman, who is at his astonishing best as Winston Churchill. This is the stuff that not only Academy Awards, but also legends, are made of.
Oldman, who bears little resemblance to Churchill, becomes Churchill through exquisite makeup and acting. At the first glimpse of his character, I thought “Are the credits incorrect? That can’t be Gary Oldman.” That’s how extraordinary this performance is.
It’s worth noting that this involves the same moment in time as the Christopher Nolan film “Dunkirk,” which was released earlier this year, just from a vastly different perspective.
We don’t meet Churchill right away. Instead, we watch as a meal is being prepared in his kitchen, where whiskey, steak and eggs are on the menu.
This is a beautifully written screenplay that provides character development not only in the actions and dialogue of Churchill, but also in the reactions and relationships he has with the people around him.
Particularly compelling is Kristin Scott Thomas as his wife, Clemmie Churchill, who always is loving, supportive and elegant regardless of what trials her husband faces before and after he becomes prime minister.
Churchill is full of self-doubt. Stranded on the beaches of Dunkirk are hundreds of thousands of Allied troops, sitting ducks for the enemy. He’s not sure he can lead his country as the Nazi threat comes ever closer. “You are strong because you are imperfect,” she reassures him.
His scenes with Clemme are moving and endearing. In others, Churchill is shown to be a man of considerable temper who thinks nothing of taking a drink at almost any time of day or night.
He also is an incredible orator and writer. He uses his own convictions and mastery of language to win over his radio listeners and those who see him in his daily life. “He mobilized the English language and sent it into battle,” says Viscount Halifax (Stephen Dillane).
Joe Wright’s direction enhances every scene, whether it’s a sequence of politicians seated at a table, with the camera moving from speaker to speaker, or a scene in which Churchill — shown alone and isolated in spirit as well as environment — asks for help that he realizes he won’t receive.
The sometimes contentious relationship between the bellowing Churchill and his beleaguered secretary Elizabeth Layton (Lily James) reveals even more about Churchill’s personality.
The “never surrender” speech that Churchill delivers to Parliament, of course, is one of the most compelling sequences in the film. What a marvelous cinematic moment this is — one of the best of 2017.
And so is the rest of this movie.