In Darkest Hour, Gary Oldman plays British war leader Winston Churchill as he faces up to the threat posed by Nazi Germany.
Filmmaker Joe Wright has made his name as a director of well-observed period pieces, and a decade on from directing Atonement, he is revisiting the Second World War with Darkest Hour, a character study of Britain's great war leader Winston Churchill, played by Gary Oldman.
Darkest Hour begins with the brutal ousting of his predecessor Neville Chamberlain (Ronald Pickup). With the war against Nazi Germany going catastrophically, the only man the opposition Labour Party will support to head up a unity government is Churchill - who we follow in the five weeks leading up to the famous Dunkirk evacuation.
However, what we have come to think of as Churchill's virtues - his unfailing determination, patriotic daring and disarming eccentricities, were then thought of as vices. Before his stint leading Britain through the war, Churchill was best known as the face of several military disasters and as a loose cannon who deserted his colleagues in the Tory Party for the Liberals before returning.
Lacking support from within his party for his plans for all-out war, the new prime minister struggles with self-doubt and the graveness of military losses as Adolf Hitler's forces march towards the English Channel and what seems like an almost inevitable invasion.
Among those determined to undermine the new leader is the Machiavellian Lord Halifax (Stephen Dillane), who believes he should be running the government and wants to pursue a peace deal. King George VI (Ben Mendelsohn) also is less than supportive of his eccentric chief minister as he would prefer the more refined Halifax and is nonplussed by Churchill's hard-drinking schedule.
However, with the support of his long-suffering wife Clemmie (Kristin Scott Thomas), his personal secretary Elizabeth Layton (Lily James) and loyal Anthony Eden (Samuel West), Churchill steels himself to inspire the king, the nation and his colleagues for the hard battle ahead.
Oldman gives an incredible performance as Churchill - one that completely lives up to the hype that has installed him as an overwhelming favourite to win Best Actor at the Oscars. The war leader has been played onscreen so many times that it's nearly impossible to avoid cigar-chomping cliches. Despite being under heavy layers of make-up, Oldman shows a rare side to the war leader - vulnerable, fuelled by self-doubt and occasionally struggling with the tremendous responsibilities of office. His is a Churchill who is more human than icon.
The first half of the film is close to a masterpiece, combining the feel of a political thriller with an in-depth and intense study of a complicated man. However, the decision of screenwriter Anthony McCarten, who penned Stephen Hawking biopic The Theory of Everything, to swap this for a more sentimental, unashamedly patriotic tone in the film's second half is something of a misstep. One scene in particular, where Churchill meets everyday salt-of-the-earth Londoners on a tube train and taps them for wisdom and reassurance, jars as a trite and utterly implausible fictional invention.
It's a shame, as for most of its running time Darkest Hour and its star get to grips with Churchill's contradictions in a way few others have. Still, Darkest Hour is a must-see for Oldman's performance alone.
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