"Darkest Hour" is a by-the-books biopic anchored by a towering performance.

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Many Political Science scholars believe Winston Churchill was perhaps the greatest politician of the 20th century. With that in mind, director Joe Wright, who showed considerable chops with WWII in "Atonement," has been given the almost impossible task to cover Churchill's most crucial moment as leader of the British republic. The story covers the events that happened in May of 1940, just before the fall of France during WWII. Prime Minister Chamberlain, in over his head with the war, is ousted from office, as his appeasement strategy with Hitler has turned out to be a complete failure. Enter Churchill whom, despite being unpopular before even being sworn in, attempts to lead the British back on track to defeat Hitler and his Nazi thugs. 

Churchill is played by Gary Oldman and it has already become a cliche to say that this is a towering performance from the 59-year-old-actor. He is, unsurprisingly, the actor that most pundits are predicting to win the Best Actor Oscar come next February. Deservedly so might I add. Oldman is spellbinding, you don't feel like you're watching an actor act, you feel like you're watching Churchill. The enveloping nature of his performance is, of course, unsurprising for fans, such as me, of this highly underrated thespian of an actor, whom, by the way, was never nominated for his work in "Leon," "True Romance," and "Sid & Nancy." 

Lighting a cigar in bed and constantly terrorizing his shy, young typist (Lily James), the 66-year-old Churchill is ready for battle when asked to go to the chambers, underground war rooms and the halls of Parliament to unite a country. Kudos to cinematographer Bruno Delbonnel ("Amelie") whose fluidly moving camera and darkly lit rooms convey a cinematic sense of impending dread throughout. Yes, this is Oscar-Bait delivered in a full-throttled, preachy way by Wright, but I'm not sure the academy will bite this time around, The film, from a dialogue-heavy script by Anthony McCarten (The Theory of Everything), relies on an easy and reliant trope of national unity and patriotism, something that has become uncool not just for voters but audience members as well. This is certainly a film that's engaging in parts but feels bland and uninvolving in others. It's weirdly forgettable and sets the notion that if it weren't for Oldman's virtuoso, showstopping performance, filled with a brilliant reliance on every speech pattern Churchill ever had, it might as well have been an HBO movie.

The tracking shots Wright uses through tunnels are remarkably acute, especially in a memorable scene involving Churchill sneaking off and going through the London Subway system, asking passengers on the train what their thoughts are about the war.  To Wright, the shouts of "Never!" -roared by passengers when Churchill asks if they would be OK in seeing a Nazi flag fly over Buckingham palace- is reason enough for the leader to decide not surrender to the Nazis. It's a hokey, sentimental moment but it works because Wright accepts the ridiculousness of the moment and embraces the bait and switch that could come with such an Oscar-ready scene. "Darkest Hour" is just that kind of a movie, a by-the-books film anchored by a towering performance. [C+]

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