There was a time when you couldn't go to the movies without seeing at least one trailer in which the deep-voiced announcer told you, "(Pick a name) IS (pick a character)." It was done so much that it became a cliché.
Well ... sometimes clichés are correct. And long before Darkest Hour has finished its two-hour, six-minute running time, I'm sorry: Gary Oldman IS Winston Churchill.
It's an amazing performance given that Oldman is not yet 60, he's (normally) lean and we have seen Churchill portrayed so many times that we have certain expectations. Oldman nails them all right from the start in Joe Wright's film, which covers one month in the spring of 1940 when it truly was the darkest hour not just for Great Britain, but perhaps Western civilization.
Hitler's troops had stormed into France. Nazi tanks were rolling through Belgium, meeting little resistance. Practically the entire British army was stuck at Dunkirk, trying to get home before the Germans reached the coast and ended England's war effort before it could begin.
This is when Churchill is appointed prime minister by King George VI (and, speaking of transformations, if you have seen the fine actor Ben Mendelsohn as the troubled Danny Rayburn in Netflix's Bloodline or perhaps in Rogue One, you will be stunned to find out he is the one playing the king).
The film revolves around Churchill's battle with deposed prime minister Neville Chamberlain (Ronald Pickup) and Lord Halifax (Stephen Dillard), two men hopelessly stuck in a peace-loving past, believing that a negotiation with Hitler will benefit England the most. Even as Churchill battles to bring the boys home from Dunkirk, these men are plotting his overthrow. Oldman does a magnificent job of showing Churchill losing confidence through the middle of the film before finding a surprising way to regain it near the end.
If you know your history, you'll foresee that the film is going to climax with Churchill's most memorable speech to the House of Commons, in which he established, once and for all, that Britain would not negotiate with tyrants and would never surrender. In the words of Lord Halifax, watching from a balcony and looking down on the Parliament members whipped into a cheering frenzy by Churchill's oratory: "He mobilized the English language ... and sent it into battle."
To get to that point, he must resolve the Dunkirk riddle, which made me wonder what a combination Darkest Hour and Dunkirk film might look like. This summer's release, directed by Christopher Nolan, is all about the action in the air and the sea and, if it has a serious flaw, it is the viewers' struggle to feel for the characters and have a real sense of what's going on beneath the beautiful cinematography.
This is the opposite: lots of old men in gray suits in Parliament or the War Room or the Map Room searching for a means to survive, and maybe even a little help from FDR and the United States. With fewer pyrotechnics, it's more difficult to capture the story, but under Wright's direction, the pace remains steady and, given that Churchill is the focus here, the dialogue keeps cracking.
It doesn't always take much. The king and Churchill meet for lunch every Monday, a regular engagement neither is thrilled to keep. At one point, King George asks Churchill how it is he manages to drink all day (whiskey, with Champagne for lunch and dinner).
Churchill's response: "Practice."
It would be unfair to concede all the filmmaking tricks of the trade to Nolan's movie.
When Darkest Hour wants to swing into action, it does, and there is nothing more moving than the scene in which a British officer, bunkered underground in Calais not far from Dunkirk, receives the telegram from Churchill telling him there will be no evacuation. It's a death sentence.
The camera tracks the general walking through a long underground tunnel filled with wounded soldiers, then rises up to the sky where the bombs of the Luftwaffe are released to fall on the target below. No evacuation, indeed. But it's a remarkable shot.
Churchill eventually regains his spirits after this disaster through a brush with the common man. Then it's off to address the House of Commons to save the world. Give this film a "V for Victory."
PG-13 (for thematic material). 126 minutes. At the Landmark Magnolia and Angelika Plano.