Darkest Hour (PG)

A NEW film about Winston Churchill could have felt like overkill. The last year has seen two impressive portrayals of Britain’s most lauded premier, by John Lithgow (The Crown) and Brian Cox (Churchill), as well as Dunkirk, about the “miracle” evacuation of British troops from France that came to symbolise Churchill’s wartime leadership. Surely that’s more than enough Second World War, rhetoric and cigars?

Nevertheless, Darkest Hour demands to be seen. And the chief reason is Gary Oldman. It’s taking nothing away from Lithgow or Cox to say that this is one of those transformative performances that very few actors are able to pull off. Coming after Oldman’s George Smiley in Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, it reasserts the Londoner as one of the greatest living actors and really ought to win him his first Oscar.

It’s not entirely a one-man show. Director Joe Wright has surrounded Oldman with a classy cast on top form, and directs a purposeful script with style and gusto. The result actually makes an excellent companion piece to the aforementioned Dunkirk. Whereas Christopher Nolan’s war film recreated the evacuation, from the point of view of the stranded soldiers and the airmen and civilian sailors going to their aid, Darkest Hour offers a political prologue to those physical exertions.

It’s May 1940. After the failure of appeasement and with mainland Europe falling to the Nazis, Tory prime minister Neville Chamberlain (Ronald Pickup) is forced to resign and clear the way for a new leader to head a wartime coalition. Much to the dismay of his own party – who regard him as a reckless maverick – Churchill is the only Tory acceptable to the Opposition. And so King George VI (Ben Mendelsohn) equally reluctantly invites the 65-year-old, heavy drinking, cigar-chomping firebrand to form a government.

“I’m only getting the job because the ship is sinking,” Churchill declares to his wife Clementine (Kristin Scott Thomas). He’s certainly thrown overboard. With the British army trapped in France, he must decide whether to try to rescue them and fight on – risking invasion – or sue for peace with a tyrant.

Anthony McCarten’s script focuses on the few weeks between Churchill’s appointment and his famous “we will fight them on the beaches” speech, recreating the political minefield he must navigate as Chamberlain and the Foreign Secretary (Stephen Dillane), scheme for his removal. As if Hitler wasn’t taxing enough.

The piece thunders along with such urgency that it feels more like a thriller than an historical drama. As he demonstrated in his own Dunkirk beach scenes in Atonement, Wright is a highly visual filmmaker. Whether using long tracking shots to evoke wartime London, composing imaginative aerial views of French battlefields, or clinging close to Churchill has he scuttles through the bunker-like War Rooms, Wright is working overtime to keep us on the edge of our seats.

But the film’s chief energy source is Oldman. The actor is a dab hand at playing real-life figures – Joe Orton, Sid Vicious, Lee Harvey Oswald, Beethoven – always creating a character beyond mere facsimile. Churchill may be his crowning glory.

While the make-up is astonishing, and the actor draws upon familiar traits and characteristics – the eloquence and mood swings, the cigar and homburg hat – it’s a fresh and exhilarating interpretation. This is a Churchill in perpetual motion, light-footed despite his age and girth, his drive and ambition balanced by mischievous humour and humanity.

No doubt history buffs will pick away at the details (Churchill’s trip on the Underground is a bit of a stretch). Even so, Darkest Hour is an invaluable portrait of that rare thing – a premier who could inspire a nation.