Gary Oldman could take best actor as Winston Churchill in ‘Darkest Hour’

December 21, 2017 GMT

“Darkest Hour” is a fine film about Winston Churchill and his decision-making as Hitler swept through Europe that will ultimately be remembered for one thing: Gary Oldman is Churchill.

In much the same way that “Lincoln” has made many of us believe that’s what Abraham Lincoln was really like, thanks to Daniel Day-Lewis’ Oscar-winning performance, Oldman pulls off the trick here.

And rather than whiskers, it is prosthetic jowls that conceal much of Oldman’s face and make us believe the appearance in a bit of movie magic.

But this performance is more than a skin-deep portrayal; it is a full-bodied portrait, and it’s another likely best-actor trophy-taker that reminded me of Ben Kingsley’s turn in “Gandhi.”

The film itself is best as a character study and less of a history buff’s look at the events surrounding Churchill becoming prime minister and shaping history with an early leadership decision: Attempt to negotiate peace with Hitler or wage war?

There’s not much depth to the historical nature in director Joe Wright’s picture, which is more concerned with trying to create a thriller dynamic (trying too hard with a pulsing soundtrack) with subtle comedic aspects.

Wright (“Atonement,” “Pride & Prejudice”) eschewed being encyclopedic for being entertaining with a spotlight always shining on his one-man show.

There is a fine cast here, like Kristin Scott Thomas (“The English Patient”) as Churchill’s wife playing second-fiddle to his career, and Ben Mendelsohn as King George VI, the royal with a grudge against his new prime minister who’s been forced upon him at wartime.

Then there’s Lily James (“Baby Driver”) as his new typist, clacking away on the great orator’s speeches. She’s also our common-Briton conscience of the film.

Such as when Churchill makes decisions like sacrificing the lives of 4,000 men in Calais to distract the German army away from Dunkirk and the effort to save 300,000 British soldiers trapped there.

Suggested double-feature for the present of 2017′s best films or for the future: See “Darkest Hour” followed by “Dunkirk” and watch these events virtually collide with one another.

Those side performances are all well and good in shaping the picture’s emotional narrative, but much like the people around Churchill in his life, these supporting characters are merely here to revolve around Oldman’s embodiment of the great man.

There is great color from the moment we meet him, in bed with his breakfast, and his cat, dictating telegrams to his new secretary that he berates into tears with his gruff nature and acidic tongue.

Remember this is the man who once replied to a woman who told him “If I was your wife I’d poison your coffee!” with this: “If I was your husband I’d drink it.”

But the performance is more than a mimic, beginning with Oldman and the soulful expressions he creates despite extensive makeup.

The man has always been a true chameleon, and to look at a photo gallery of his performances is to be amazed by the changes.

Here he uses that mug of his for less than joviality at his biting sarcasm and more for the pained honesty of a man weighing options against a Nazi monster.

He creates a Churchill who is both a flawed man and a hero of the people worth cheering for.

This Englishman probably won’t need to fight in the fields and in the streets to win his own Oscar this year that he will never, ever surrender.