Following a trend in recent biopics, instead of slogging through the subject’s entire life, this one focuses on a brief, defining period. In this case, a couple of weeks at the beginning of WWII. The British forces are trapped on a beach across the Channel in Dunkirk, France, and Britain is next on Hitler’s list. Almost as political default, a frantic parliament turns to the deeply flawed Winston Churchill for leadership, a heavy-drinking odd duck that no one really likes.

But the armed struggle in Europe is dwarfed by the political one facing the new PM in the House of Commons. Hitler has offered to spare Britain, but perhaps at a terrible cost to the rest of the world. Churchill must decide to either give in to a seemingly unstoppable military force or stand and fight. And though we know the outcome, the film is as tense and suspenseful as any battlefield movie.

Gary Oldman took home a long-deserved Academy Award for his impeccable portrayal of Churchill. It is said that a good actor “disappears into a role.” Oldman certainly does this but is aided immeasurably and quite literally by the (also Oscar-winning) work of Japanese make-up artist Kazuhiro Tsuji (and two others).

The director of this beautifully written and gorgeously filmed movie is Joe Wright. He made Atonement, Anna Karenina and Pride and Prejudice (but also Pan). Brilliant supporting work by Lily James, Kristin Scott Thomas and Stephen Dillane. (125 min)