Dir: Joe Wright | Cast: Gary Oldman, Kristen Scott Thomas | Lily James | Ben Mendelsohn, Ronald Pick-up | Biopic Drama | UK

Darkest Hour is to be believed, Britain’s destiny was actually decided during a tube journey from St James’ Park to Westminster on the 28th May, 1940 when the war cabinet met to make a pivotal but in the end winning agreement to continue resisting Hitler’s inexorable plans to invade the British Isles.

English director Joe Wright’s Darkest Hour follows on from Jonathan Teplitzky’s Churchill which concentrates on the hours leading up to the invasion of Normandy. They are both worthwhile and weighty films deriving considerable dramatic heft from these crucial and compelling moments during the Second World War.

The film opens as Parliament is returning a no-confidence vote against Neville Chamberlain’s shaky leadership (he was suffering from cancer), in favour of fellow Conservative Winston Churchill who is played with considerable conviction and aplomb by Gary Oldman in a performance that won him an academy award at the year’s Oscars. Ironically the US film came away empty handed but won a BFDG award for production design.

Although Churchill was seen as a bumptious drinking man – and he wasn’t a well man himself, he nevertheless got up and finished first in the charisma stakes and the rest is history. While all around him – including the weakened King George VI were clammering for Britain to strike a deal with Germany and retire graceful from the fray, Churchill confidently led the country to victory through a precarious series of potholes from Hitler’s imminent invasion through to winning the war. Strangely Clement Attlee doesn’t feature at all, but that’s for another film.

This is a beast of a role and Oldman takes it on masterfully – deftly playing up the vulnerable ego-driven empathiser, he makes for a sleeker and more dapperly upbeat Churchill than Brian Cox’s blustering bull of a man, although they both have their moments in creating an indomitable English hero who is still much treasured in the Nation’s collective memory. And it falls to Joe Wright and his writer Anthony McCarten to turn the action around from the fateful tube journey and a time of desperation to the successful end game with their rather clunky plot device.

The distinguishing factor about Darkest Hour is the atmospheric way Wright catapults us back into 1940 with the extraordinary look of the film. From the scenes in Buckingham Palace, in Parliament and even in Churchill’s intimate domestic rooms we are surrounded by the gloominess of the era, daylight shafting in through windows onto characters dwarfed by the enormity of what was at stake. Lit by Bruno Delbonnel’s terrific cinematography the walls and wood-panelling soars up around us, making us feel small in the scheme of things.

Impressive also are the performances: Ben Mendelsohn makes a stutteringly good George complaining of being “harshly tweeted” (he probably would have been had twitter been invented at the time). And Kristin Scott Thomas is gracefully deferential of her husband, much less forceful but, strangely, just as convincing as Miranda Richardson’s Clemmie. Lily James gets a small but perfectly formed and even amusing cameo as Churchill’s secretary Elizabeth Layton.

But at the end of the day it is Oldman’s Churchill that powers this forward. His alluring way with words and his charismatic showmanship energises this biopic sending it soaring into the annuls of Second World War film archive. MT