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Movie review: 'Darkest Hour' a soaring portrayal of Winston Churchill on the eve of Dunkirk

By: Ann Hornaday The Washington Post
December 22, 2017 Updated: December 22, 2017 at 7:12 am
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Lily James stars as secretary Elizabeth Layton and Gary Oldman as Winston Churchill in "Darkest Hour." MUST CREDIT: Jack English, Focus Features

Until this year, the finest clip about Dunkirk was a sequence of the World War II evacuation, filmed in one 5-minute take for "Atonement," directed by Joe Wright.

Now Wright brings a full-fledged Dunkirk film. "Darkest Hour" is receiving awards chatter for Gary Oldman's portrayal of British Prime Minister Winston Churchill. Wright brings sumptuous, jewel-box sets and elegantly staged set pieces in which Oldman's star turn joins solid performances by Kristin Scott Thomas and Ben Mendelsohn.

Handsomely filmed, intelligently written, "Darkest Hour" comes after "Their Finest" and "Dunkirk."

In 1940, the war is underway, and German troops have taken France, setting their sights on the island across the English Channel. When Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain is forced to resign, the winds of fortune blow in Churchill's direction after a disastrous political career.

"It's not a gift," he says grumpily when the post is offered. "It's revenge."

Screenwriter Anthony McCarten drills into the period that shaped Churchill into the iconic figure whose high-toned comportment and rhetoric seem like dreams today. "Darkest Hour" features many Churchill-isms: the cigar, long baths, love of champagne, curmudgeon wit. But it also gets to the canny operator beneath the surface.

The evacuation of Allied troops from Dunkirk would be his first definitive act as PM, and "Darkest Hour" chronicles his decisions whether to capitulate or fight. His love for the country is never in doubt, as in the scene in a London subway in which the aristocrat enjoys a fleeting connection with the everyday people he seeks to serve and rally to his side.

Even better are encounters with his wife, Clementine (Scott Thomas), and King George VI, portrayed by Mendelsohn with delicacy and pathos. Working behind layers of makeup and prosthetics, Oldman proves he's one of the greatest actors with a characterization including Churchill's talent for self-invention and stagecraft, statesmanship and political survival.

As a portrait of leadership at its most brilliant, thoughtful and morally courageous, "Darkest Hour" is the movie we need right now.

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