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Movie Review: ‘Darkest Hour’ marks Gary Oldman’s finest hour as Churchill

This image released by Focus Features shows Lily James as Elizabeth Layton, left, and Gary Oldman as Winston Churchill in a scene from "Darkest Hour." (Jack English/Focus Features via AP)

WASHINGTON — He played Commissioner Gordon in “The Dark Knight” and Sirius Black in “Harry Potter” before his Oscar nomination for the spy thriller “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy.”

Now, Gary Oldman delivers what could be his finest hour in the new film “Darkest Hour.”

Set in 1940 London during the early phase of World War II, new British Prime Minister Winston Churchill (Oldman) persuades parliament not to negotiate with Adolf Hitler.

“How many more dictators must be wooed, appeased, given immense privileges before we learn?” Churchill shouts. “You cannot reason with a tiger when your head is in its mouth!”

Director Joe Wright has assembled a marvelous cast: Lily James (“Baby Driver”) as secretary Elizabeth Layton; Kristin Scott Thomas (“The English Patient”) as wife Clementine; Ronald Pickup (“The Mission”) as predecessor Neville Chamberlain; and Ben Mendelsohn (“Bloodline”) as King George VI, the same role that won Colin Firth an Oscar for “The King’s Speech” (2012). Such stellar support is mostly a vehicle for Oldman to shine — and bloody shine he does.

Just like Meryl Streep as Margaret Thatcher in “The Iron Lady” (2011) and Daniel Day-Lewis as Abraham Lincoln in “Lincoln” (2012), expect the hefty role of Churchill to finally win Oldman his overdue Oscar, just as it won an Emmy for John Lithgow in “The Crown” (2016). Even more so than Lithgow — and definitely more than Woody Harrelson in “LBJ” (2017) — we forget that it’s Oldman inside the body suit with stunning prosthetics by make-up artist Kazuhiro Tsuji.

It’s a transformative performance not just in appearance, but in body language and delivery, complete with angry mumbles, soaring speeches, fiery passion and flawed insecurities. Here’s a man who isn’t afraid to look inward, yet nervous at what he might find: “My mother was glamorous — but perhaps too widely loved. My father was like God — busy elsewhere.”

Such sparkling lines belong to screenwriter Anthony McCarten, who penned the Oscar-nominated script for the Stephen Hawking biopic “The Theory of Everything” (2014). These quips pepper a strong character arc as we watch Churchill become Churchill, growing from an eccentric hard-case to an emotional man of the people. All the while, McCarten squeezes in comic relief with a “V for Victory” gag where a peace sign is sign language for “up your bum.”

Still, the best-written scene comes during a call with FDR, showing America’s reluctance to enter the war before Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941 (fittingly the film arrives on Dec. 8). While that “day that will live in infamy,” Churchill was already battling his own infamous foe, showing the early bravery of being on the right side of history. As he once famously said: “You can always count on the Americans to do the right thing after they have tried everything else.”

Thus, “Darkest Hour” is an essential film that only a Brit could make. Wright is perfect for the job, having already tackled the Dunkirk evacuation in “Atonement” (2007). Here, we see the behind-the-scenes planning of the mission, nicknamed Operation Dynamo, making “Darkest Hour” a key companion piece to Christopher Nolan’s summer hit “Dunkirk” (2017). I’d love to see a supercut of the two movies, intercutting the battle action with the war-room drama.

While Nolan may win Best Director, Wright shows his own chops by deploying dynamic cinematic concepts to what could’ve been a sterile period piece inside dim London hallways. Instead, it feels alive from the first time we see Churchill in the darkness of his bedroom, lighting a cigar with a flicker of light like Deep Throat in “All the President’s Men” (1976).

Wright’s recurring technique is an elaborate “crane shot” that appears to combine practical and digital camera moves. The best example comes at the 75-minute mark, as the camera tracks backward in a long take following an officer through a military bunker. It pushes in on a telegram in his hand, then cranes up into an extreme high angle as planes fly over. Later, we see such a plane via the P.O.V. of a child’s cupped hand, closing on the camera like an iris.

Surely, Wright would tip his “top hat” to his crew, including cinematographer Bruno Delbonnel (“Amelie”) and editor Valerio Boneli (“Philomena”). He also reunites with trusty collaborators in production designer Sarah Greenwood and composer Dario Marianelli, who both worked with him on the trio of “Pride & Prejudice” (2005), “Atonement” (2007) and “Anna Karenina” (2013).

If there’s one scene that rings false, it’s during the beginning of Act Three, as Churchill takes a train ride on the London Underground among the commoners. Here, all ages, races and creeds rally to “never surrender” by quoting the same inspiring passage in unison. While it’s a touching scene in theory, it feels contrived in execution, especially since it didn’t actually happen. Here’s hoping you can forgive a little creative license. In other words, “mind the gap.”

In the end, “Darkest Hour” isn’t perfect, but it’s a brilliant portrait of a consequential figure of the 20th century. As politicians banter at the end — “What just happened?” “He just mobilized the English language” — it reminds us that words matter and strong leaders think before they speak (or Tweet). We never tire of Churchill’s wisdom via Oldman: “Lost causes are the only ones worth fighting for” and “Those who never change their minds never change anything.”


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