PLOT In the spring of 1940, newly appointed British Prime Minister Winston Churchill holds the line against the Nazis.
CAST Gary Oldman, Kristin Scott Thomas, Lily James
RATED PG-13 (salty language)
PLAYING AT Manhasset Cinemas and Malverne Cinema 4
BOTTOM LINE A solid wartime drama, but Oldman’s phenomenal performance as Churchill makes this a must-see.
High-school history teachers just got the third title in a cinematic curriculum on the events of Dunkirk this year. The first was the middling but well-researched drama “Their Finest,” about a group of British filmmakers who help mythologize the heroic rescue mission. The second was Christopher Nolan’s “Dunkirk,” a boots-on-the-ground depiction of events. Now comes “Darkest Hour,” about Prime Minister Winston Churchill’s leadership of Britain during the days leading up to the Dunkirk evacuation.
It’s an extremely well-crafted period piece, with an information-rich script by Anthony McCarten and quiet, understated direction by Joe Wright (who handled Dunkirk a bit more showily in 2007’s “Atonement”). But the main attraction here is Gary Oldman as Churchill. As an act of physical transformation and emotional expression, it’s something close to supernatural.
The film begins on May 9, 1940, as Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain (Ronald Pickup) gets the boot from a typically rowdy parliament. As a replacement, Churchill’s name is generally uttered as if it’s been stepped in, but he is nevertheless approved by King George VI (played by Ben Mendelsohn with a mix of noblesse oblige and realpolitik). Suddenly, the portly fellow with the stubby cigar and the spittle-soaked voice must save a nation on the brink of disaster.
Like Nolan’s “Dunkirk,” which flipped the war genre by focusing on a rescue mission after a failed battle, “Darkest Hour” focuses on a wartime leader remembered for his refusal to consider peace. Viscount Halifax (Stephen Dillane), who relentlessly pushes for talks with the Nazis, serves as the film’s villain, as it were, but we have to wonder how strong our own resolve would be in the face of Hitler’s frightening campaign across Europe.
“Darkest Hour” benefits from the great Kristin Scott Thomas as Churchill’s faithful wife, Clementine, and Lily James as his secretary, Elizabeth Layton, but this is Oldman’s movie. Aided by undetectable prosthetics, the naturally slim actor settles into the portly Churchill like a spirit into a host body. (Kazuhiro Tsuji, the makeup artist lured out of retirement by Oldman, seems destined for an Oscar). “Darkest Hour” would be a top-notch period piece by any standard, but Oldman’s performance might just make it one for the history books.