A narrow strip of French beach is going to be well represented at the Oscars early next month with a pair of films that have garnered a combined 14 nominations in various artistic and technological categories. Audiences had the chance to examine the scope of a dramatic military engagement in Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk and now Gary Oldman, the 60-year-old British actor character actor, dominates director Joe Wright’s examination of Winston Churchill’s early days as prime minister in the spring of 1940 when Hitler’s army swept across Western Europe like a rampaging plague.
Both movies wind up oddly complementing each other, with Nolan’s brilliant cinematography and rather bloodless characters providing a panoramic view of the historic event while Wright’s brilliantly claustrophobic examination of Churchill’s egocentric personality pits his will against that of his country’s reluctant government in responding to Germany’s violent aggression. Neither film is a masterpiece, but each provides an example of competent filmmaking that takes a vastly different approach to their similar subject matter.
Oldman’s been a fixture in British and American movies for more than 30 years, effortlessly moving from complex leading roles that range from spymaster (Tinker, Tailor, Solder, Spy) to punk-rock superstar (Sid and Nancy) with nearly a score of character roles in U.S. fantasy/sci-fi series such as Bat Man, Planet of the Apes and Harry Potter. Despite his rather diminutive physical stature, the actor’s personality can fill an entire movie screen as he does here in an increasingly compelling performance combining physical movement, vocal intonations and eerie makeup to bring his Churchill alive in writer Anthony McCarten’s screenplay. Oldman so dominates this film that he reduces other excellent members of the cast to bit players who often become mere foils for the great man’s outsized ego and flair for vivid -- if often florid -- rhetoric.
The film has earned Oldman a well-deserved nomination as Best Actor, but credit also must be given to Oscar Nominees Sarah Greenwood and Katie Spenser as Darkest Hour’s Production Designers as well as the film’s cinematographer Bruno Delbonnel. This talented trio has taken a brief page from recent history and brought it back to life, offering viewers a glimpse into real events well beyond the realm of that produced by Masterpiece Theater.
The Verdict? Compelling drama masquerading as absorbing history.
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