It was hardly hyperbole when, in the late 1980s, film critic Roger Ebert labeled Gary Oldman "the best young British actor around." Oldman may not have graced the Hollywood A-list at this time but he was nonetheless killing it with dazzling turns in the likes of Sid and Nancy, Prick Up Your Ears and Rosencranz & Guildenstern Are Dead. Oldman would, over the years to come, instill vitality in safer fare like Air Force One, The Contender and Hannibal, plus Christopher Nolan's Batman trilogy, which perhaps introduced a whole new generation of film buffs to the veteran actor.
Rarely, however, has Oldman been handed a role with this much meat to chew on. His turn as newly appointed British Prime Minister Winston Churchill in Darkest Hour, a performance talked up for months as a shoo-in for the Best Actor Oscar, is a legit tour de force, a master class in acting that is equal parts convincing and entertaining. It's just too bad the picture around him isn't operating at that same sky-high level.
Directed by Joe Wright, a master of the workmanlike British drama, Darkest Hour follows Churchill during the early days of World War II. Nazi forces are steamrolling across Western Europe and the threat of invasion to Great Britain is imminent. Where his predecessor Neville Chamberlain (Ronald Pickup) was known for his appeasement foreign policy, Churchill fiercely opposes Hitler and loathes the idea, still advocated by the Chamberlain wing, of negotiating with him. Ultimately, despite his political opponents' best efforts to influence him, Churchill rallies the nation behind the war effort and the rest is history.
Darkest Hour often has the feel of a one-man show. This is in part due to the riveting, larger-than-life nature of Oldman's performance, a turn that graces the screen in nearly every frame. It is also, however, the result of screenwriter Anthony McCarten's decision not to much flesh out a single other figure in the picture. We learn virtually nothing about wife Clementine (Kristin Scott Thomas) or King George VI (Ben Mendelsohn) and while Pickup is quite terrific as Chamberlain, he too is mostly treated like a mannequin.
This isn't to put the film down too much. Beyond Oldman, there's a lot to like on the technical end, with a marvelous Dario Marianelli score and lush cinematography by Bruno Delbonnel. A handful of scenes, perhaps most notably Churchill's bolting from his car to join his fellow citizens for a trip on the subway, are also very nicely staged by Wright.
Ultimately, though, Oldman upstages everything and everyone around him in Darkest Hour. He chews scenery, sure, but also instills in Churchill a palpable sense of vulnerability. Oldman also disappears into the role in a way I don't think past actors like John Lithgow (The Crown) and Richard Burton (The Gathering Storm) quite pulled off.
Darkest Hour may be a stuffy endeavor in many regards but Oldman more than delivers the goods.