In the Dark: Churchill played by many but mastered by Gary Oldman

Gary Oldman as Winston Churchill in Joe Wright's Darkest Hour

‘Darkest Hour’

Starring: Gary Oldman, Lily James

Directed by: Joe Wright

Rated: PG-13

It’s not often that I’m not ready for a movie to end. I really wanted this one to go on and instead of taking us up to the point that England entered World War II, take us all the way through. Of course, the caveat would be that the incomparable Gary Oldman would continue in the part of a lifetime as Winston Churchill.

Director Joe Wright has a keen eye for talent. It was Wright who first introduced Saoirse Ronan to audiences in the adaption of Ian McEwan’s novel “Atonement.” She was just a young Irish girl then, and now she’s leading lady material in the critically acclaimed “Lady Bird.”

I don’t know whose idea it was for Oldman to tackle the role of Churchill, one so many have taken on, but it was a good one. Most recently, we’ve seen John Lithgow in the Netflix series, “The Crown.” He won an Emmy for his performance, and no surprise, Oldman is the frontrunner in the Oscar race as of today.

We talk of actors disappearing into roles, but it is nothing short of a miracle the way Oldham transforms into Churchill. Prosthetics make the physical transformation, but Oldman’s mannerisms and speech complete the character, right down the ever-present cigar.

The particular point in history that Wright focuses on is Churchill’s ascension to prime minister of England. The only reason the old curmudgeon is even in consideration is both parties can agree to him after predecessor Neville Chamberlain (Ronald Pickup) fumbles mightily in his war policy.

The story follows the behind-the-scenes battles Churchill had to overcome, both in his own party and the opposing party, as he begins to realize that Hitler just might invade England. With British troops stuck in Calais and Dunkirk, the now famous armada of civilian boats Churchill had to assemble rescues the Dunkirk troops. If you saw Jonathan Nolan’s “Dunkirk” earlier this year (and it’s now out on DVD), it’s a fine bookend to “Darkest Hour.”

But the bigger battle ongoing in the war room is the internal plea for Churchill to acquiesce and enter into peace talks with Hitler, via Italy’s Mussolini. Amazing as it is to think about now, there was an influential government faction that actually pushed for this, led by Viscount Hallifax (Stephen Dillane).

The story unfolds not only through Churchill’s perspective, but also through his secretary, Elizabeth Layton (Lily James), who survives an initial scathing rebuke for her typing skills from the new PM, only to resolve to stay on with him where she is literally witness to history in the making.

Kristen Scott Thomas should have been given more to do as Clementine, or “Clemmie,” as Winston calls his wife. She is only in a few scenes, mostly comforting Churchill as he becomes increasingly beleaguered by the overwhelming odds of keeping England out of Hitler’s hands.

In addition to the high praise for Oldman, including my own, I’d really like to see a supporting actor nod for Ben Mendelsohn (“Blood Lines”) as King George VI, or “Bertie,” as he was known. Mendelsohn usually enjoys the more dressed down, grungy character roles, but here he’s impeccably dressed and groomed as the king, right down to the noble accent. He and Oldman share some wonderful scenes as they explore their relationship as king and prime minister.

History buffs will recall Churchill’s ultimate address to Parliament and the famous speech he gave that galvanized England with wake-up call of never surrendering. Not only was it Churchill’s finest hour, but it was Oldman’s, too.

“Darkest Hour” sheds light on some of England’s most challenging times, certainly worth revisiting in today’s political climate. This one goes to the top of my “best of” list for 2017.

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