Gary Oldman is Winston Churchill. It’s the kind of role-inhabiting performance that Daniel Day Lewis and Charlize Theron gave in Lincoln and Monster, respectively, and the centrepiece of director Joe Wright’s gripping account of the inspirational British PM’s early days in office. Needless to say, it won’t be overlooked by the Academy come awards season.

Like the recent Brian Cox film, Churchill, Darkest Hour finds Winston at a crucial juncture, having just been appointed PM after parliament loses confidence in Neville Chamberlain (Ronald Pickup).

Despite facing distrust from his own party and King George (Ben Mendelsohn), after his tactical failure at Gallipoli, Churchill’s implementation of Operation Dynamo – the rescue of 300,000 men at Dunkirk – helps to restore faith. And his obstinate refusal to negotiate a peace with Hitler proves instrumental in rallying the nation to “never surrender.”

“Oldman never surrenders to the sort of grandstanding that can overwhelm the drama”

Darkest Hour is obviously a performance piece, but Oldman never surrenders to the sort of grandstanding that can overwhelm the drama. Buried under pounds of jowly makeup, he might lack the physical similarity to Churchill that distinguished Cox’s portrayal, but he nails Winston’s mien.

Introduced in the flare of a match while enjoying a cigar and scotch for breakfast, his Churchill is a flawed and often comic figure, delivering those famous barbs – “Will you stop interrupting me while I’m interrupting you!” – and embarrassing his new secretary (Lily James). Dark times call for a little levity.

This might be Oldman’s show but he’s surrounded by a strong supporting cast including James and Kristen Scott Thomas as his wife and rock, Clementine. Stephen Dillane’s intense Viscount Halifax is painted as the villain, while Ben Mendelsohn proves an interesting choice as the rather solemn King.    

Wright, too, gives his best with this talky but always compelling drama. Back in the period milieu of Atonement, Darkest Hour could be considered the director’s own atonement for the debacle that was Pan.    

Together with Churchill and Dunkirk, Darkest Hour completes a triptych of quality films chronicling the events and politics that shaped Britain’s victory in World War II.

In cinemas: January 11, 2018star-4
Starring: Gary Oldman, Lily James, Ben Mendelsohn
Directed by: Joe Wright