Joey Nolfi
September 02, 2017 AT 01:01 PM EDT

Gary Oldman should have no issues mustering the courage to continue into the awards race ahead.

As expected, the acting vet stormed the Telluride Film Festival Friday night with his leading performance in Joe Wright’s Darkest Hour. The “stunningly cinematic history lesson,” according to early reviews, follows Winston Churchill’s burgeoning tenure as prime minister of Great Britain as he weighs whether to negotiate a peace treaty with Nazi Germany or lead a nation against fascist threats.

“It is a vigorously directed, tightly paced war thriller with nothing less at stake than saving the world from Adolf Hitler. Anchored by an exacting, measured but sweetly responsive lead performance by Gary Oldman, Darkest Hour is the best of many great cinematic portraits of Churchill,” respected Oscar prognosticator Sasha Stone of Awards Daily writes. “There is no other way to watch Oldman than in near disbelief that anyone could bring Churchill back to life this convincingly. It will be difficult for any other actor to top Oldman this year.”

“There is no doubt that Darkest Hour belongs to its lead,” she continues. “Oldman has every mannerism and inflection nailed down completely, yet he never loses focus on why we need yet another film about Churchill. Now more than ever it’s essential to remember what real leadership looks like. To be reminded that it’s not about easy answer. To be shown that the strengths that saved us in the past may be the very strengths we need to save us once again.”

Many critics have noted the film’s parallels to Christopher Nolan’s Churchill-era World War II epic Dunkirk, released in July, though instead of immersing audiences into the gritty frontline of battle, Darkest Hour chronicles “the other side of the operation,” per Variety‘s Peter Debruge, who goes on to call Darkest Hour the most cinematic in a sea of on-screen portrayals of the iconic leader, from The Crown‘s John Lithgow to Churchill‘s Brian Cox, echoing Stone’s similar sentiments that the craftsmanship behind the film’s technical elements — including Dario Marianelli’s score, Bruno Delbonnel’s cinematography, among others — are top-notch as well. (IndieWire’s David Ehrlich enthusiastically agrees, noting Marianelli’s music is a “rare thing of beauty” that “holds the film together.”)

“In actuality, Churchill wrote his own history, and here, Wright and [screenwriter Anthony] McCarten have re-drafted it even more emphatically in his favor. But Oldman makes him human, and his performance gives us ample room to reevaluate the iconic figure,” Debruge concludes.

With Oldman in attendance for the Telluride premiere, the film additionally received a standing ovation from theatergoers, many of whom have already hailed him the one to beat at the upcoming Academy Awards.

“So clearly we have our Best Actor [frontrunner] in Oldman,” Stone tweeted shortly after the screening ended. “[The performance is] on the level of [Philip Seymour] Hoffman’s [in] Capotevery likely your winner.”

Oldman, nominated for an Oscar only once before despite appearing in nearly 100 productions since 1982, was widely anticipated to stake an advance claim on the Best Actor race prior to Darkest Hour‘s world premiere screening at Telluride, and now that critics have spoken overwhelmingly in his favor ahead of the film’s next screening in Toronto, that path has gotten a bit clearer, even at this fledgling stage on the fall festival circuit.

It’s also worth noting that since 2013, three Best Actor Oscar contenders have debuted at Telluride — Chiwetel Ejiofor in 12 Years a Slave, Benedict Cumberbatch in The Imitation Game, and Michael Fassbender in Steve Jobs — all playing roles based on real-life figures, while the festival has hosted plenty of Best Picture contenders in recent years, including Moonlight, Room, Spotlight, Birdman, and Nebraska over the same frame.

Among Oldman’s likely competition at this point are Denzel Washington (Roman J. Israel, Esq.), Daniel Day-Lewis (in an as-yet-untitled Paul Thomas Anderson film), Tom Hanks (The Post), Jake Gyllenhaal (Stronger), and Timotheé Chalamet (Call Me By Your Name).

Read more praise for Darkest Hour, which opens domestically on Nov. 22, out of Telluride below.

Sasha Stone (Awards Daily)
Darkest Hour will be a major player in the Oscar race, if tonight’s crowd reaction is any indication. Gary Oldman received a richly-deserved standing ovation. In his remarkable career he’s gone from playing Sid Vicious to Winston Churchill. No one seems more surprised than he. At the Q&A after the screening he said when he was first asked to play the part he laughed out loud. Some might say that classic Hollywood has made comeback, focusing once again on WWII. But Darkest Hour is so much more than that. It feels alive and fresh – the kind of cinema that doesn’t waste a second. Wright has made sure every shot is indispensable. He has made not just one of the best films of the year, but one that will inspire some of us to hold up our fingers in a ‘V’ sign to keep our spirits high, to demonstrate our confidence that we can win this game that we’re currently clearly losing. As Churchill would say, “It is the time to dare and to endure.”

Pete Hammond (Deadline)
“As for Oldman’s Churchill the only word to properly describe it is ‘towering.’ Every now and then, an actor finds a role he was born to play and that is definitely the case this time. Oldman blasts through this film with such force and dominance it is hard to imagine anyone else coming along this year that can steal the Best Actor Oscar from him, but the season has six months to go so fasten your seat belts.”

Peter Debruge (Variety)
“Dialing things back from his relatively garish adaptations of Anna Karenina and Pan, this more elegant film’s style brilliantly marries the classical with the cutting-edge, relying on regular composer Dario Marianelli and his swirling, march-like motifs for much of its energy. Working for the first time with DP Bruno Delbonnel, Wright frames the House of Commons from angles that suggest 18th-century painting, and pushes the contrast to such an extreme that the look — with its deep shadows and near-blinding highlights — recalls black-and-white films of the era. At the same time, he innovates, breaking from the walk-and-talk political-drama template introduced by The West Wing (from which House of Cards and so many others still borrow) in favor of a more dynamic, omniscient camera, with which he navigates the halls of power.”

Todd McCarthy (The Hollywood Reporter)
“Oldman enthusiastically plays right into this with a boisterous performance that, physically and vocally, may not match up precisely with the Churchill the public can still behold in any number of vintage newsreels and recordings but which, ironically, may help win the old lion a new generation of fans.”

David Ehrlich (IndieWire)
“One of the few actors whose performances are regularly big enough to be seen from space, Oldman has met his match. Here, for the first time, the star has found a character who’s larger than life itself; no matter how much hot air Oldman breathes into this balloon, it’s never going to pop. His Churchill might be the first lead performance in film history that’s delivered entirely in shouts, but it works. Barely recognizable underneath 100 pounds of jowls, Oldman disappears into the role, and that’s all to its benefit. If Wright’s film is an intricate timepiece, then Oldman is the machinery just under its face: “Darkest Hour” doesn’t work without him, but it’s best that he remains invisible. Besides, how exciting could it possibly be to watch another British screen legend wind up their Winnie? Hell, with John Lithgow doing such a fine job of it on The Crown, even the American greats have gotten it down. No, this movie isn’t remarkable for what Oldman does, but rather for what Wright does with him.”

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