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MOVIE REVIEW: In excellent ‘Darkest Hour,’ Gary Oldman is force with which to be reckoned as Winston Churchill

By Mark Meszoros,, @MarkMeszoros on Twitter

Tuesday, December 19, 2017

It’s early on in “Darkest Hour” when you say to yourself, “Oh, Gary Oldman is getting an Academy Award nomination for best actor for this.”

Sure, Oldman is unrecognizable as the then-newly appointed British Prime Minister Winston Churchill in the historical drama, thanks to the wizardry of the film’s prosthetic, makeup and hair artists. After all, in real life, the veteran actor Oldman looks absolutely nothing like the famous leader.

However, it is Oldman’s tour de force as Churchill during wartime that powers “Darkest Hour,” a compelling and engaging piece of filmmaking from director Joe Wright and writer Anthony McCarten deserving of awards consideration as a whole.

“Darkest Hour” introduces us to Churchill in 1940, shortly before he takes office, when others in the British government worry what this large personality — one who some see as most interested in putting on a show and celebrating himself — will do.

“ I want others to love and respect you — as I do,” says Winston’s wife of three decades, Clemmie (Kristin Scott Thomas).

In an entertaining early scene, Winston meets with King George VI (Ben Mendelsohn of “Rogue One: A Star Wars Story”) about the latter’s desire for the two to have a weekly meeting, the monarch suggesting 4 p.m. on Mondays.

“I nap at 4,” Winston counters.

Another wonderful scene has Winston, Clemmie and some people close to them celebrating as he is about to take office, when Winston offers this toast: “Here’s to not buggaring it up!”

“Darkest Hour” tells a version of events from May 10 through June 4, when, McCarten says in the press materials, “Winston turned coal into diamonds.”

That great act was not easy, as “Darkest Hour” conveys, Churchill having doubters around many a corner. With Allied Forces already engaged with Adolf Hitler’s Germany, there was great debate about whether England could afford to stay in the conflict. To Winston, the country could not afford to leave it, for all that might mean.

“Without victory,” he rails in an address to Parliament, “there can be no survival!”

The drama comes to a head with the dilemma of what to do about the hundreds of thousands of Allied soldiers surrounded by German forces on the beaches of Dunkirk, France. The British and French troops will be killed or captured if not soon rescued, which would be no easy task. (“Darkest Hour” is the second excellent film in 2017 to dramatize this moment in history and may prove to be to more people’s tastes than director Christopher Nolan’s beautifully filmed and almost-meditative “Dunkirk.”) Churchill wants to sacrifice 4,000 men to save 300,000, but that math is no easy sell.

Churchill was a great orator, and McCarten wisely built his script around a few of his earliest — and highly memorable — speeches, and Oldman is spectacular performing them.

While one could see the actor’s work in this film as over-the-top — a conclusion you may reach were you to watch only a trailer for “Darkest Hour” — Oldman balances the big moments with more nuanced touches.

His is at least the third recent memorable portrayal of the British Bulldog of late. And while Brian Cox in the earlier 2017 film “Churchill” and John Lithgow in the series “The Crown” — the second season of which just became available to stream on Netflix — are very good, they fall short of the heights reached by Oldman here.

“Darkest Hour” would have benefited from a greater use of Scott Thomas (“The Horse Whisperer”) — for a deeper examination of the Winston-Clemmie dynamic, watch the aforementioned “Churchill” — but it is buoyed by nice work from Lily James (“Baby Driver,” “Cinderella”) as Churchill’s secretary, Elizabeth Layton. Other noteworthy supporting performances are turned in by Stephen Dillane (“Game of Thrones”), as Viscount Halifax, and Ronald Pickup (“The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel”), as Neville Chamberlain.

As he has a habit of doing, Wright (“Atonement,” “Pride and Prejudice”) gives us a beautiful film, shot by cinematographer Bruno Delbonnel (“Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children”). While much of the action takes place in dark-and-drab concrete halls, such spaces have never looked so glorious, thanks to the way Wright and Delbonnel use light to cut through the darkness.

More importantly, Wright makes the most of the narrative penned by McCarten (“The Theory of Everything”), building momentum over the course of the film’s two hours, climaxing with a crowd-pleaser of a scene with Winston on a subway train with the common citizens for whom he believes he is fighting for.

Oldman (“Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy”) recently received a nomination for the Golden Globe Award for Best Performance by an Actor in a Motion Picture. It won’t be the last honor he receives for his work in “Darkest Hour.”

‘Darkest Hour’

In theaters: Dec. 22.

Rated: PG-13 for some thematic material.

Runtime: 2 hours, 5 minutes.

Stars (of four): 3.5.