Oldman shines in an Oscar-worthy performance in Joe Wright’s lively, spirited WWII tale

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Gary Oldman goes big in “Darkest Hour.” Not just with the heavy makeup job and layers of padding he dons to play Winston Churchill, but in his outsize mannerisms, his barking presence and his wily eyes. He’s over-the-top in the best possible way.

Oldman is acting royalty; name another person who has played characters as varied as Dracula (“Bram Stoker’s Dracula”), Sid Vicious (“Sid and Nancy”), Beethoven (“Immortal Beloved”) and Lee Harvey Oswald (“JFK”), not to mention sinister pimp Drexl “is it White Boy Day?” Spivey in “True Romance.” Churchill is his next logical step, and Oldman bites into the role like he’s sitting down to a luxe steak dinner. The 59-year-old has never won an Oscar and has been nominated but once (for “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy”), but that is likely to change come March.

Showy role aside, the idea of Oldman-as-Churchill may invoke some stuffy period drama, but “Darkest Hour” is far from stuffy. Director Joe Wright (“Pride & Prejudice,” “Atonement”) juices this historical drama with punch and verve, staging Parliament scenes like something out of “Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome” and marking on-screen dates with title cards that slam down like a gavel. This is not the History Channel telling of Churchill.

“Darkest Hour” focuses on the British Bulldog’s early days as Prime Minister during World War II; it pairs quite nicely with Christopher Nolan’s “Dunkirk,” fleshing out the behind-the-scenes drama that led to Operation Dynamo. Ben Mendelsohn is quite good as King George VI and Kristin Scott Thomas is exemplary as Clementine Churchill, but “Darkest Hour” is a one man show for Oldman. And what a show it is.

agraham@detroitnews.com

(313) 222-2284

@grahamorama

‘Darkest Hour’

GRADE: B+

Rated PG-13 For some thematic material

Running time: 125 minutes

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