Since it was first performed at the Apollo Theatre in London on 9 December 1928, RC Sheriff's acclaimed play, Journey's End, has been frequently adapted for film and television. James Whale also directed the first cinematic version for Gainsborough in 1930, while Heinz Paul produced a German variation, Die andere Seite/The Other Side, the following year. In November 1937, the action was abridged for the BBC by George More O'Ferrall for a live Armistice Day transmission. Intriguingly, this lost interpretation included scene-setting footage from GW Pabst's Westfront 1918 (1930) and Sheriff (who studied at New College between 1931-34) found his own material being reworked for Jack Gold's Aces High (1976), which took the story out of the trenches and into the skies with the Royal Flying Corps. 

The BBC took a second tilt at the material in 1988, when Michael Simpson caused a degree of controversy by staging the raid that Sheriff had left to the audience's imagination. By all accounts, Ben Elton and Richard Curtis based the final episode of Blackadder Goes Forth (1989) on this teleplay. But writer-producer Simon Reade and director Saul Dibb have taken liberties of their own in reviving Journey's End to mark the centenary of Operation Michael, the March 1918 offensive that Sheriff (himself a veteran of Passchendaele) used as the backdrop for his timeless study of troops waiting to go into combat.

On Monday 18 March 1918 near St Quentin in northern France, Lieutenant Osborne (Paul Bettany) urges Captain Stanhope (Sam Claflin) and Second Lieutenant Trotter (Stephen Graham) to finish their card game and join Second Lieutenant Hibbert (Tom Sturridge) in returning to the front line after a few days away from the trenches. Meanwhile, at the British Army Depot at Amiens, Second Lieutenant Raleigh (Asa Butterfield) reports to his uncle, General Raleigh (Rupert Wickham), who tries to advise him against joining C Company simply because Stanhope is an old school friend who is engaged to his sister. 

Relieving Captain Hardy (Miles Jupp), Osborne uses a periscope to check out the German positions some 60 yards away, while Stanhope orders his men to patch up the planking of a trench he suspects wouldn't last five minutes in the face of the expected German offensive. In the cramped subterranean quarters, Mason the cook (Toby Jones) brings candles after Hardy's men remove the electric light bulbs before leaving. Stanhope is furious that they have also taken their ammunition and left his unit with some rusty Mills bombs. But his mood is scarcely improved by the sight of Raleigh, as he doesn't want him to know how much of a toll the war has taken since he was decorated at Vimy Ridge. Trotter joins them for an awkward supper before taking Raleigh on a mud-squelching tour of the trench, while Stanhope guzzles down whiskey under the watchful gaze of Osborne (who is known to his men as `Uncle'), who knows the strain his commander is under, as the men wait for the enemy to make its move. 

The next morning, Stanhope learns that the German push is expected on 21 March and he conveys the news to Trotter and Osborne. However, he withholds it from Raleigh, who has just written a letter to his sister and Stanhope orders him to leave it unsealed because all correspondence has to be censored. Dreading its contents, he asks Osborne to read it aloud and is admonished for suspecting that the hero-worshipping Raleigh would do anything to betray a confidence. 

While Osborne and Raleigh inspect rifles, Stanhope goes to HQ. Reprimanded by the Colonel (Robert Glenister) for reeking of spirits, he is told to select two officers and 10 men to lead a raid on the German trenches to try and grab a prisoner and learn something about the reinforcements being brought into the line. The Colonel suggests Osborne and Raleigh, as the former is a steady chap and the latter knows too green to be afraid. Returning to the bunker, Stanhope confronts Hibbert, whose nerves are equally shot, and pulls his revolver in denying him permission to visit the doctor and be stood down from duty. Lowering the weapon, Stanhope gives Hibbert a reassuring hug and admits that he feels much the same way, but cannot allow himself to show any weakness in front of the men and is grateful that Osborne accepts his mission with stoic grace. He feels queasy, however, when toasting C Company while dining that night with the Colonel and the complacent officer in charge of the bombardment designed to soften up the enemy ahead of the raid. 

Extra provisions arrive at the bunker the next morning, including live chickens (which are, literally, being sent to the slaughter) and Stanhope coerces the Colonel into addressing the rank-and-filers about to go over the top. Left alone, Osborne chats to Raleigh about walking in the New Forest and on the Sussex Downs to take his mind off the ordeal he is about to undergo. He offers a few reassuring words about the smokescreen that will enable them to cross No Man's Land before removing his name tag and leaving his watch on the table for Mason to guard until they return. 

The camera follows the spattered puttees, as Osborne and Raleigh pass along the trench and acknowledge the good luck wishes of their comrades. Stanhope greets them with a cigarette and a smile, as they slither along a gully to the embarkation point. Raleigh vomits with fear, as they wait for the signal to go and Osborne nods to keep him calm. 

Suddenly, the howitzers land in the German trench and the detail scrambles into the line of fire. The jerky handheld camera movements and rapid cuts convey something of the chaos of the manoeuvre, as some men fall and others complete their objective of snatching a prisoner. As they head back, Osborne grabs the collar of a wounded fellow and tries to drag him towards safety. But, while Ernst (Eirik Bar) is given a hot cup of tea and the Colonel congratulates Stanhope on a job well done, he laments the fact that six of his men have been killed and that Raleigh rather than Osborne made it home. Indeed, when Raleigh sinks on to Osborne's bunk in traumatised exhaustion, Stanhope berates him for showing such little respect. Having ripped into Hibbert for getting drunk on champagne and boasting obnoxiously about his sexual conquests, Stanhope tears off another strip when Raleigh accepts an invitation to eat bread and soup with the men rather than dine with his fellow officers and Mason skulks in the kitchen with a pained expression, as Stanhope breaks down and sobs on Raleigh's shoulder at losing his friend. 

As the day of the expected attack dawns, Mason wakes Stanhope with tea and gives Trotter and Raleigh sandwiches to take up top. Hibbert is reluctant to leave the bunker, but Stanhope shames him into leaving with Mason, who jokes about popping back down around 10am to peel the spuds for lunch. An unbearable silence descends, as the men wait for the Germans to attack. A flare shoots into the grey sky before the first shells and gas canisters land. Stanhope and Trotter try to rally the sitting ducks under their command and the former helps Raleigh on to Osborne's bed when he is hit in the back by some shrapnel. For the first time since his arrival, Stanhope talks to Raleigh like an old friend, as he urges him to hang in there until the stretcher bearers arrive. But he fails to survive and Stanhope is blown backwards by the force of an explosion, as he attempts to climb the steps to the trench. 

On 22 March, Margaret (Rose Reade) opens the letter that Raleigh had written on his first night with C Company. Over in France, German soldiers wearing gas masks scour the trench for survivors. But there are none and an overhead shot reveals the extent to which the post has been obliterated during the opening salvoes of what came to be known as the Spring Offensive, which lasted three months and claimed over 700,000 lives. Within a month, however, the captured territory had been retaken by the Allied forces. As a closing caption reveals, one million more men were to die before the Armistice was finally signed on 11 November 1918. 

By drawing on the novelisation that Sheriff wrote with Vernon Bartlett, Dibb and Reade are able to open out the stage play without straying too far from its enduringly poignant core. However, the compelling action takes place in the bunker and adjoining trench that has been designed with chilling simplicity by Kristian Milsted and photographed with boggy authenticity by Laurie Rose. Markedly more effective than Hildur Gudnadottir and Natalie Holt's nuanced, but superfluous score, Bryn Thomas's sound design is also key to conveying the claustrophobic dankness of the setting, as each breath seems to resound as loudly as a mortar, as the men wait for their invisible foe to make its inevitable move. 

Underplaying impeccably to capture the inimitably British sense of sang froid, the leads feel like pals who have already been through hell together. Yet the formality imposed by class remains, as Sam Claflin adopts a different tone of address to working men Stephen Graham and Toby Jones, even though he has much more admiration for them than he does Robert Glenister's desk-bound colonel and his pampered aides. Forever gulping down Dutch courage and clinging to the last vestiges of the heroism that earned him the Military Cross, Claflin steadily unravels as the wide-eyed Asa Butterfield's arrival forces him to face the grim reality of his situation. But Paul Bettany also excels as the composed and kindly schoolmaster, whose ease with his charges reminds us that Sheriff earned an Oscar nomination for Sam Wood's adaptation of James Hilton's bestseller, Goodbye Mr Chips (1939). Only Tom Sturridge strikes a wrong note, but that is the point of his character, as his psychological distress is partly feigned. 

Dibb stages the battle sequences with suitable solemnity to emphasise the futility and horror of the exchanges. Yet he also includes a number of neat touches, such as the hospitality meted out to the captured German and the way in which Graham uses food as a coping mechanism. The exchange between Butterfield and his uncle and the sequence in a cosy Hampshire home a world away from the Western Front feel more extraneous. But this works best when it sticks to the manuscript, most notably when Bettany seeks to distract Butterfield with happy memories and quotations from Lewis Carroll's Alice in Wonderland.

There seems to have been no escaping Winston Churchill of late. Following on from portrayals by John Lithgow in The Crown (2016-), Michael Gambon in Churchill's Secret (2016) and Brian Cox in Jonathan Teplitzky's biopic, Churchill (2017), Gary Oldman takes a tilt at the role of Britain's most iconic prime minister in Joe Wright's Darkest Hour. Buried beneath Kazuhiro Tsuji's imposing prosthetics, Oldman embodies the bulldog spirit of resistance that Christopher Nolan ensured had coursed through his momentous epic, Dunkirk (2017), which was also set during the spring of 1940. But, rather than recycling the tics and traits used by the likes of Richard Burton, Albert Finney, Brendan Gleason and Robert Hardy (seven times) in playing the Blenheim-born premier, Oldman eschews mimicry to capture the contradictions of a public colossus who was privately beset by self-doubt and the black dog of depression. 

Following newsreel footage showing the might of the German war machine on 9 May 1940, captions inform us that Adolf Hitler has conquered Czechoslovakia, Poland, Denmark and Norway and has three million troops massed on the Belgian border. In Britain, Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain (Ronald Pickup) is harangued in the House of Commons by Labour leader Clement Attlee (David Schofield) under the mournful gaze of Foreign Secretary Edward Wood, 3rd Viscount Halifax (Stephen Dillane). But, while Chamberlain (who is suffering from terminal cancer) is prepared to step down, Halifax resists Conservative Party efforts to sweep him into 10 Downing Street by insisting that the country's best hope is the notoriously irascible and unpredictable First Lord of the Admiralty, Winston Churchill (Gary Oldman).

He first appears in a flash of light, as he smokes a cigar in his Chartwell bedroom and terrorises new secretary Elizabeth Layton (Lily James) while dictating letters between telephone calls and gulps of his breakfast whiskey. On hearing the news that the Wehrmacht has crossed into Holland and Belgium, Churchill is in no mood to be hindered by error-strewn, single-spaced typing and has to be reminded by his long-suffering wife, Clementine (Kristin Scott Thomas), that he will have to be kinder if he is to assume high office. So, when Layton accepts a telegram on fleeing after a glimpse of the Churchillian undercarriage as he clambered out of bed in his nightshirt, he remembers to thank her with a twinkle in his eye. 

Despite summoning Churchill to Buckingham Palace, King George VI (Ben Mendelsohn) is far from enthralled by the prospect of working with a man who had actively encouraged his brother, then Edward VIII, to marry American divorcée Wallis Simpson in 1936. He also reminds Chamberlain of Churchill's chequered record in government before thanking him for his efforts and lamenting the vehemence of the criticism he has faced for trying to buy the nation time in appeasing Hitler and for exploring the possibility of enlisting the aid of Italian leader, Benito Mussolini, to sue for an honourable peace. By contrast, his first encounter with Churchill is abruptly business-like, as the new PM kisses hands and seeks to ensure that his weekly meeting with the monarch doesn't interfere with his mealtimes and naps. 

Toasted `not to bugger it up' by his family at Number 10, Churchill selects his coalition cabinet with the aid of Anthony Eden (Samuel West). On 13 May, he addresses the Commons and, in offering his blood, toil, tears and sweat, he vows to wage war at any cost and Chamberlain's evident disapproval is reflected by the uneasy silence at the end of what had been intended as a rallying cry. Meeting in a nearby park, Chamberlain and Halifax plot a way of removing Churchill through a vote of no confidence, as they are convinced that Britain is ill-prepared to fight a rearguard. At the Cabinet War Rooms, Major-General Hastings Ismay (Richard Lumsden), General Sir Edmund Ironside (Malcolm Storry), Air Chief Marshal Sir Hugh Dowding (Adrian Rawlins) and Vice-Admiral Bertram Ramsay (David Bamber) are equally concerned that Britain lacks the resources to resist a Nazi invasion, while French premier Édouard Daladier (Mario Hacquard) is baffled by Churchill's suggestion that the breach of the Maginot Line is an opening gambit rather than a decisive blow. 

While flying to France for this summit (as he had when driving along Whitehall to Downing Street), Churchill becomes conscious of the ordinary people going about their everyday activities without a real understanding of the peril they face. But others believe the only way to protect the populace is to sue for peace and Halifax meets with George VI to keep him up to date with the rumblings in the corridors of power about Churchill being a drunken loose cannon who could do irreparable damage in his vainglorious bid to secure his historical legacy. Eden advises him against going on the offensive in a BBC speech on 19 May, but he goes his own way and receives a royal reprimand in the process. He is also informed by Layton that he is doing his V for Victory sign the wrong way round. 

By 25 May, news comes that the British Expeditionary Force is at risk of being trapped at Dunkirk and Halifax opposes Churchill's plan to use a detachment at Calais to draw fire to allow 300,000 men to be rescued from the beaches. As the rest of the cabinet leave, Chamberlain and Halifax entreat Churchill to consider the Italian peace option rather than leave the country demoralised and defenceless against a Nazi advance. But the thought of compromising with a tyrant is an anathema and Churchill locks himself in the lavatory to weigh up his options. These are narrowed during a telephone conversation with President Franklin Delano Roosevelt (David Strathairn), whose hands are tied by the terms of the Neutrality Act and can only offer to deposit some aircraft close to the Canadian border so that they can be pulled into imperial territory by horses. So, Churchill emerges with his plan to assemble an armada of civilian boats and orders Ramsay to make the arrangements. 

The following day, he announces his decision to the cabinet and Halifax again urges him to exploit his Italian contacts in a bid to secure a peace. But Churchill is adamant that this will only delay the inevitable and conveys this impression to George VI over lunch. The king asks how he can drink so much during the day and Churchill concedes it takes practice. He also advises George to remain in London rather than seeking sanctuary in Canada and further shows his human side in explaining Operation Dynamo to Layton using the War Rooms maps. She sheds a tear at the thought of the men who will pay the ultimate sacrifice to ensure the evacuation of their comrades and we join Brigadier Claude Nicholson (Richard Glover) in the stronghold at Calais, as he reads the orders to fight to the death.

On learning that Belgium is about to surrender on 27 May, however, Churchill attends a cabinet meeting with growing doubts, especially when he hears of plans for a German invasion using fast motor launches and discovers how few small ships have been volunteered for his proposed rescue mission. Thus, when Halifax and Chamberlain make a final plea for him to consider accepting Italy's invitation to mediate, Churchill agrees to preparations being made. Working late into the night, he attempts to dictate a speech, but Layton has difficulty following his train of thought. As they take a break, he learns that she has lost a brother in combat. Shortly after Clementine encourages him to trust his instintcs, he receives a visit from George VI, who has decided to stay in the capital and support Churchill in whatever plan he adopts. Without ruling out peace proposals, however, he suggests that Churchill puts the unvarnished facts to the people and is guided by their response, as he has often found that they are wiser than their rulers give them credit for.

As dawn breaks, Churchill learns from Ramsay that enough boats have been registered to attempt a rescue. As he drives to Whitehall through the rain and looks out at Londoners scurrying around in slow-motion, Churchill discovers he has no matches for his cigar and jumps out of the car at some traffic lights. Before the chauffeur can stop him, he barrels into the nearest Underground station and takes the next train to Westminster. His fellow passengers are astonished to see him, but they begin to introduce themselves and Churchill asks them whether they would rather go cap in hand and plead for peace or make a stand. Buoyed by what he hears, he goes to Parliament and confides what he has heard to members of his outer cabinet and anyone else willing to listen. Further emboldened by their cheering endorsement, he tells the cabinet that he intends to fight on and recommends that Halifax follows his conscience if he disagrees with the decision. 

Chamberlain suggests that they wait to hear what Churchill has to say before forcing a vote of no confidence and Halifax takes his place in the Strangers' Gallery with some trepidation. Clutching a speech hurriedly dictated to Layton in the car, Churchill places his faith in the ordinary men and women of these islands to do their duty and fight the foe on the beaches until victory is won. Much to Halifax's chagrin, Chamberlain gives his assent to the proposal and the Tories join those on the Opposition benches in bellowing their assent and Churchill strides out of the chamber through a blizzard of floating order papers. 

Closing captions reveal that Chamberlain would die six months later, while Halifax would become British Ambassador to the United States. Despite leading his country to victory, Churchill was ousted from office in the General Election of 1945. Yet he continued to place more value on having the courage to continue than on winning or losing and one is left wondering whether this is the message that Brexit-era Brits are supposed to take away from this engrossing, if not always wholly convincing reconstruction. 

Screenwriter Anthony McCarten seems to have taken his cue from Mark Hayhurst's excellent script for Justin Hardy's BBC series, 37 Days (2014), which followed the efforts of Foreign Secretary Sir Edward Grey to prevent the outbreak of the Great War. Nicolas Asbury got to play Churchill in this meticulous chronicle of Grey's diplomatic endeavours, which stoutly refused to dumb down a complex situation and McCarten admirably follows suit until he inserts the entirely fictitious encounter with folks of various ages, races and classes on the Tube. Although it enables the audience to gauge the mood of the people and show that Churchill was not merely an egotistical maverick swimming against the tide, this sequence undermines the authenticity of what has gone before, even though McCarten and Wright frequently take liberties with their depiction of the ever-thirsty Churchill's domestic routines. 

Such humanising gambits pay handsomely, however, as they allow Gary Oldman to inject a little roguish humour into a performance that is all the better for not being larger than life. His Churchill is a flawed individual with a distinctly modest record in office, whose elevation was an enormous risk. Yet, even though his conviction and energy are to prove crucial to Britain surviving in order to prevail, McCarten wisely avoids demonising Neville Chamberlain and Lord Halifax, who acted from the noblest of intentions before and after the infamous 1938 Munich Agreement that has led many to denounce them as guilty men. He somewhat mischievously gives credit to Clement Attlee for recognising the Churchillian merits that George VI took time to discern. But there is little evident revisionism in an eloquent script that laudably seeks to demonstrate the onerousness of the responsibilities that come with great power. 

Ably abetted by a strong supporting cast (with Ronald Pickup doing particularly well as a replacement for the late John Hurt), Oldman somewhat inevitably added an Oscar to his abundant awards haul. Production designer Sarah Hammond, costumier Jacqueline Durran and cinematographer Bruno Delbonnel also deserved their accolades, as does Kazuhiro Tsuji, whose make-up is so wonderfully natural that it feels as though Oldman had bulked up for the role. But Joe Wright was rightfully overlooked for Best Director, as there is an intrusive fussiness about the shot taken from inside Lily James's typewriter, the bathing of one speech in the glow of the red radio transmission light, and the transition from a piece of bombed land to the body of a fallen soldier. He might also have used a little more understatement and done more to tone down Dario Marianelli's often studied score. Nevertheless, he makes evocative use of the impeccably recreated Commons chamber and the Cabinet War Rooms and resists the temptation to overuse the walk-and-talk technique that has become a cliché of the political drama. 

More might have been done to contrast the public's detached Phoney War mood with the desperate plight of the BEF stranded in northern France, while greater emphasis should have been placed on the pace of rearmament and the state of the defences that were in place to resist an invasion. But Wright is less interested in giving viewers a history lesson than in showing how greatness is forged in the furnace of a crisis. Consequently, this might work best as part of a double bill with Dunkirk, which, of course, didn't feature Churchill at all, or even a triple bill with Wright's admirable adaptation of Ian McEwan's Atonement (2007), whose exceptional long take across the troop-strewn beach remains his finest achievement.

Next, we come to the final act in the career of Daniel Day-Lewis. Naturally, he received an Oscar nomination for his performance in Paul Thomas Anderson's Phantom Thread. But this brooding drama set in 1950s London feels less like a showcase for Day-Lewis's incomparable talents than an opportunity for Anderson to experiment with tropes gleaned from Alfred Hitchcock and Ingmar Bergman in fashioning a study of the kind of toxic masculinity that has recently been exposed by the campaign to name and shame those powerful men who abuse their status for sexual gratification.

As a new day begins at the London atelier run by Reynolds Woodcock (Daniel Day-Lewis) and his sister, Cyril (Lesley Manville), Johanna (Camilla Rutherford) realises over breakfast that her relationship with the fastidious designer is over. He barely acknowledges her presence, as he reads and sips his coffee before dancing attendance on Countess Henrietta Harding (Gina McKee), who has come for a fitting for a gown she needs for a forthcoming function. Thus, over supper that night, Cyril suggests that Reynolds ditches Johanna and takes some time for himself at their Yorkshire retreat while she moves out. 

Driving through the night, Reynolds arrives in a picturesque village in time for breakfast at the local hotel. He smiles when a pretty waitress trips between the tables and insists on keeping the order she has written in her notebook. When she brings his food, he invites her to dinner and she slips him a message revealing that her name is Alma Elson (Vicky Krieps).

After speeding through the winding country roads to an exclusive restaurant, Reynolds fixes his gaze on Alma as she eats. He uses a napkin to remove her lipstick and asks to see a photograph of her mother. When she asks about his own, he explains that she is very dear to him, as she taught him his trade and he keeps a lock of her hair sewn into the lining of his jacket. On returning to the family home, Reynolds shows Alma a picture of his mother in the dress he made for her second wedding and muses on the superstitions that have grown up around trousseaux. He also delights in disclosing that his ugly childhood nanny never married, but becomes defensive when Alma asks why he and Cyril remain single. 

Eager to change the subject, Reynolds whisks Alma to an upstairs workshop and asks her to try an unfinished dress. He works with forensic intensity and is about to take her measurements when Cyril arrives. She unnerves Alma by savouring her scent before taking her place on the sofa to record Alma's statistics in her notebook. When Reynolds remarks on the size of her breasts, Alma bridles, especially when he retorts that he will give her some if he feels she needs them. But Cyril reassures her that he was paying her a compliment, as he likes boyish bodies. 

Over the next day or so, Reynolds dresses Alma like a doll and takes her for long walks along the coast at Staithes and Robin Hood's Bay. He says he has been searching for her and she urges him to take good care of her. Back in London, he moves her into the bedroom adjoining his own and takes pleasure in showing her off at the best restaurants wearing his creations. Alma also starts doing photo shoots and Reynolds fusses over her. Yet, when she makes too much noise buttering her toast at breakfast and when she criticises the fabric he has chosen for one of his dresses, he snaps at her and Cyril sniffily suggests that she makes more of an effort to fit in with her brother's routines. 

Alma describes living with the siblings to Dr Robert Hardy (Brian Gleeson), as we see her striving to be useful to Reynolds in competition with the ever-hovering Cyril. She models for him at private showings and makes herself available to him whether it's after midnight or before dawn. Most nights, she sleeps alone. But, every now and then, he drags her into his room and, just as impulsively, makes excuses to keep her out. He also becomes exasperated when she brings him tea on a whim, as he cannot tolerate interruptions. Cyril understands Alma's need to please her lover and shoots her an unexpectedly sympathetic smile across the breakfast table. But she promptly falls foul of Reynolds herself when she informs him that one of his most important clients, Barbara Rose (Harriet Sansom Harris), wants him to attend her forthcoming marriage to Rubio Gurrerro (Silas Carson). 

Aware of his reliance on Barbara's patronage, Reynolds strives to produce a beautiful dress, even though he finds her repulsive. He even attends a press conference, at which Gurrerro is questioned about selling visas to Jews during the war. At the reception, however, he becomes so enraged at seeing Barbara slump drunkenly on to the top table that he storms into the room where she is sleeping it off and orders Alma to remove the gown because he regards his creations as works of art not gewgaws for the rich and vulgar. As they stride away from the hotel, however, Reynolds turns to kiss Alma for being his accomplice and she feels close to him for the first time. 

The next morning, he is considerate over breakfast and urges her to share his porridge. But she gets jealous when she sees him greeting Princess Mona Braganza (Lujza Richter) when she comes for a fitting for her wedding dress. Feeling possessive, Alma makes a point of introducing herself to the princess and informing her that she lives with Reynolds. Emboldened, she asks Cyril if she can vacate the premises for an evening so that she can cook for Reynolds and dine alone. Cyril reminds her that her brother dislikes surprises, but Alma has made up her mind and greets Reynolds on the staircase in her new dress when he gets home. 

He is annoyed to find that Cyril has conspired against him and insists on taking a bath before eating. When he finally comes down, he can barely suppress his fury at being ambushed and berates Alma for serving his asparagus with butter instead of oil and salt. When she tries to explain that she loves him and wanted to do something special, he sneers at her and suggests that she leaves if she is so unhappy. She protests that she simply wishes to spend some time with him and he retorts that his time is his own and that she has no right to impose upon it. 

At breakfast the next morning, Cyril asks Reynolds if he would like her to ask Alma to leave. When he seems puzzled, she reveals that she has become fond of Alma and doesn't want to see her being persecuted like his other conquests. He goes to gainsay her, but Cyril hisses that he doesn't have what it takes to beat her in a fight and he glowers at her in resentful silence. Reynolds has also underestimated Alma, who puts poisonous mushroom shavings in his tea and he tears the royal wedding dress in collapsing during an inspection. Alma puts him to bed and enjoys having control over her victim, while Cyril supervises the repairs to the dress. However, she insists that Dr Hardy sees Reynolds and he refuses to be examined. Nevertheless, he admits to Alma that he feels scared and she gives him a quiet smile of consolation so that he can see her being the model wife and nurse. 

After a restless night, in which he has a vision of his late mother staring at him in her wedding dress from the other side of the bedroom, Reynolds comes downstairs to find Alma sleeping beside the wedding dress. He kisses her bare feet and apologises for his past mistakes and asks her to marry him because he has realised that time is passing him by and that there is so much that he can only do with her at his side. She accepts and Cyril smiles as she watches them exchange their vows. Yet, on honeymoon at an Alpine ski resort, Reynolds finds himself being annoyed by the way Alma crunches her toast at breakfast and stays at the chalet to work while she heads for the slopes. 

Back in London, they attend a Christmas dinner being hosted by Lord (Nicholas Mander) and Lady Baltimore (Julia Davis). The latter sympathises with Reynolds on getting saddled with such a spoilt child and points out how she has barely looked in his direction since she spotted Dr Hardy. Lady Baltimore stirs the pot further after Reynolds and Alma squabble over a game of backgammon and she exacts her revenge by accepting Hardy's invitation to the Chelsea Arts Ball on New Year's Eve, Reynolds watches her leave without a word. But, as the clock ticks towards midnight, he becomes increasingly indignant and storms into the hotel to snatch Alma off the dance floor. She puts up token resistance, as he drags her away, as she knows she now has the upper hand. 

Alma watches Reynolds suffering during a fitting with Mrs Vaughan (Jane Perry). He excuses himself and goes to Cyril's office to pour out his woes. Wounded at being dropped by Henrietta Harding because she wants to look chic, Reynolds complains to his sister that he has made a terrible mistake and needs Alma to leave if he is to regain his confidence and self-esteem. Unaware that Alma is listening at the door, he pleads with Cyril to help him get rid of her. But she is in no mood to conspire against her sister-in-law and suggests that Reynolds bucks up his ideas and stops whining. 

Returning alone to the country, Reynolds and Alma survey each other across the kitchen. He suspects that the mushrooms she is chopping for his omelette are poisonous and, yet, he says nothing as she tosses them into the frying pan and stirs in the butter and eggs. Moreover, despite making a performance out of sitting at the table, he takes a mouthful and chews with a deliberation that lets his wife know that he is on to her. She tells him that she wants to see him helpless on his back and needing her to comfort him. But she also wants him to recover and regain the strength she admires and he kisses her passionately, as they finally acknowledge that they cannot live with or without each other. 

Leaving the bathroom to call Dr Hardy, Alma shoots Reynolds an adoring look and his eyes twinkle as he watches her during his examination. We see Alma telling Hardy about her twisted relationship before a shot shows her wheeling a pram across a London park for Cyril to mind the baby while she and Reynolds grab some time alone. She helps him run the atelier and keep his new clients happy and he repays her by staying on the dance floor after everyone else has left the hunt ball. As the film ends, Reynolds rests his head on Alma's lap and she smiles when he mumbles something about being hungry. 

The result of many discussions between Anderson and Day-Lewis, this is a remarkable piece of work that keeps teetering between masterpiece and parody. Rooted firmly in the Woman's Picture tradition of postwar Hollywood film-making, this occasionally strays closer to Jean Negulesco than Douglas Sirk, especially when Oxford's own Jonny Greenwood's score mischievously allows the strings to swell and the piano to plink, as though Liberace was playing along to Mantovani. But, with its echoes of Rebecca (1940) and Vertigo (1958), this most often feels like the kind of film that Alfred Hitchcock had hoped Marnie (1964) would be. 

It's apt that the action is set in 1955, as this was the year that Anatole Litvak filmed Terence Rattigan's chamber drama, The Deep Blue Sea, and Anderson seems to have taken many of his tonal cues from Terence Davies's 2011 remake. Yet, for all its focus on the dangerous liaison between Reynolds and Alma (and, for that matter, between them both and Cyril), this also has a delicate vein of screwball comedy that has been sewn into the lining of the melodrama. Maybe that's why Anderson dedicated the picture to Jonathan Demme, as the byplay between Day-Lewis and Vicky Krieps does bring to mind the way Anthony Hopkins and Jodie Foster circled each other in The Silence of the Lambs (1991).

In fact, as the screenplay keeps us so firmly in the here and now, we get to know very little about Reynolds Woodcock and Alma Elson, who remain by-products of backstories that are never revealed. Given the time frame, Alma would probably have been a teenager in Europe during the last days of the Second World War. Her accent is Germanic, but the actress playing her is from Luxembourg and, so, we are left to guess Alma's perspective on the conflict and what scars it might have left. Reynolds is an even more of a closed book. We know he was a mother's boy and is very much under the thumb of his sister. But we are none the wiser about his recent past and whether he served in the forces of exploited his establishment contacts to remain in his elegant home on a fashionable London square. 

Despite his reputation as a ladies' man, it's never made definitively clear that Reynolds is entirely heterosexual. By all accounts, the character has been modelled on the flamboyant designers Charles James and Cristóbal Balenciaga. However, his creations seem closer to something that Norman Hartnell or Hardy Amies might have run up for their exclusive clienteles. First seen clipping his nostrils and ear lobes and slipping his feet into knee-length mauve socks, Day-Lewis - playing his first English character since Pat O'Connor's Stars and Bars (1988) - teasingly gives his dandy a wondrously fey speaking voice that can slip between urbanity, sycophancy and ferocity with disconcerting ease. Looking variously like John Le Mesurier and Conrad Veidt, he is an obsessive control freak whose cruel streak is tempered by his emotional fragility. 

The impassive Lesley Manville is even more terrifying, especially when she stares directly into the camera lens. But, while her nomination for Best Supporting Actress is entirely merited, the omission of Krieps from the Best Actress line-up is deeply regrettable, as the credibility of the storyline depends on her ability not only to hold her own against Day-Lewis, but also to suggest that she could crush him if she so desires. Passion and power are as key to the drama as possessiveness and precision, with Anderson reinforcing the latter theme with his sinuous camerawork, which recalls Max Ophüls at his most erudite. Mark Bridges's costumes and Mark Tildesley's production design are equally astute, although it might have been useful to have contrasted the cocooned world of the Woodcocks with the realities facing the rest of post-Austerity Britain. 

If this meditation on the dynamic between a genius and his muse is to be Day-Lewis's swan song, it means he leaves on a high that also represents a return to form for Anderson after the relative disappointments of The Master (2012) and Inherent Vice (2014). But it also marks a huge leap forward for Krieps after impressing in Philippe Claudel's Before the Winter Chill (2013), Ingo Haeb's The Chambermaid Lynn (2014) and Florian Gallenberger's Colonia (2015).

Last year saw the largely unheralded 90th anniversary of talking pictures and the Academy Awards reached the same milestone on 4 March. Ironically, among the performances in contention for Best Actress was the latest in a line of wordless displays to have found Oscar favour. Perhaps rightly, Sally Hawkins joined fellow Brit Samantha Morton in Woody Allen's Sweet and Lowdown (1999) in failing to emulate Jane Wyman in Jean Negulesco's Johnny Belinda (1948), Patty Duke as Helen Keller in Arthur Penn's The Miracle Worker (1962), Marlee Matlin in Randa Haines's Children of a Lesser God (1987), Holly Hunter in Jane Campion's The Piano (1993), Jean Dujardin in Michel Hazanavicius's The Artist (2011) and Leonardo DiCaprio in Alejandro González Iñárritu's The Revenant (2015) in winning the award. However, nine decades after Al Jolson proclaimed `You ain't heard nothing' yet,' in Alan Crosland's The Jazz Singer (1927), Hawkins's work in Guillermo del Toro's The Shape of Water confirms that screen silence can still prove golden. 

Although narrator Giles (Richard Jenkins) informs us that our story involves a `princess without a voice' and a `monster who tried to end it all', he also mentions the `last days of a fair prince's reign' and this sites the action in 1962, as President John F, Kennedy locks horns with the dastardly Soviets in the Cold War being waged from his court at Camelot. As she wakes from a watery dream, mute thirtysomething Elisa Esposito (Sally Hawkins) seems oblivious to the fact the TV sets in the shop windows near her Baltimore apartment are showing U2 bombers in stark black-and-white. She prefers fantasy and delights in joining Giles (who is balding, gay and lives with his cat while struggling to get by as an illustrator) to watch Bill `Bojangles' Robinson and Shirley Temple doing their famous stair dance in David Butler's The Little Colonel (1935). 

Scarred on the neck and abandoned as a baby, Hawkins is sufficiently carnal to masturbate in the bath as she gets ready for the work, but she is also a dreamer and rehearses Temple's steps as she sashays along the corridor before emerging on the street beneath the illuminated marquee of the Orpheum cinema. This old-style fleapit is fighting a losing battle against television by showing biblical epics like Henry Koster's The Story of Ruth (1960) and owner Mr Arzoumanian (John Kapelos) is so keen to drum up custom that he offers Hawkins free tickets for the show. However, she has to get to the secret government facility where she toils as a janitor alongside neighbour Zelda Delilah Fuller (Octavia Spencer), who never stops talking and interprets Elisa's sign language for their colleagues. 

While tidying up in one of the laboratories, Elisa and Zelda see Dr Robert Hoffstetler (Michael Stuhlbarg) take delivery of a tank containing Amphibian Man (Doug Jones), who has been captured in a South American river and is being guarded by imposing federal agent Colonel Richard Strickland (Michael Shannon). However, they are escorted out of the room when Elisa taps the glass of the pressurised container and she heads home to accompany Giles to the diner where he has a crush on Pie Guy (Morgan Kelly) behind the counter. His fridge is full of half-eaten pies and Elisa turns up her nose at a bilious-looking slice of key lime while watching Betty Grable singing `Pretty Baby' in Walter Lang's Coney Island (1943). Sitting on the sofa, the friends duplicate her soft-shoe shuffling and smile before Elisa heads for bed and another day on the night shift.

Following an uncomfortable encounter with Strickland in the washroom, Elisa and Zelda are summoned by supervisor Fleming (David Hewlett) to clean up the blood in the lab from which a bleedings Strickland has just emerged in some distress. Elisa finds two of his fingers on the floor and pops them in a brown paper bag before gazing into the tank containing Amphibian Man, who seems to connect with her through the glass. She mentions him to Giles, who says he is pretty sure that mermen don't exist before heading off to a presentation and leaving her to watch Alice Faye singing the Oscar-winning `You'll Never Know' in H. Bruce Humbertsone's Hello, Frisco Hello (1943). However, while Bernard (Stewart Arnott) likes his artwork for a Jell-o commercial, he is forced to turn down his proposal and dithers when Giles (who is a recovering alcoholic) asks if there is any chance that he can rejoin the agency, as freelancing is proving a hard row to hoe. 

Having been given a pep talk by Strickland about sticking to their jobs in the laboratory, Elisa sneaks in during her lunch hour and lures the creature (who has been chained in a pool) to the surface with a boiled egg. He seems to understand her sign language and responds when she returns the next day with a portable record player so he can hear Glenn Miller's `I Know Why (And So Do You)' from Humberstone's Sun Valley Serenade (1941). As she takes the bus home and rests her head against the window, a glow lights up her face, as she feels close to the Amphibian Man, who had stood against the glass to watch her dance with her mop and bucket (as Gene Kelly had done in George Sidney's Thousands Cheer, 1943). 

However, her stolen moment is spotted by Hoffstetler, who is really Russian agent Dimitri Antonovich Mosenkov. He informs handler Mihalkov (Nigel Bennett) that Amphibian Man has the ability to communicate and feel and he is keen to protect him from Strickland and General Hoyt (Nick Searcy), who are in favour of dissecting him to learn about his ability to breathe out of water so that they can advance America's manned space programme. Distraught at seeing the creature chained to a slab and bleeding from the wounds inflicted by Strickland and his cattle prod, Elisa vows to liberate him and asks Giles for his advice. She delivers an impassioned speech about him accepting her for who she is when Giles says he is too busy to help with her mad folly. But, having been rejected again by Bernard and spurned by Pie Guy (who turns out to be a racist homophobe), he returns home to throw in his lot with Elisa because people in the margins need to stick together. Unbeknownst to them, they also have an ally in Hoffstetler, who is dismayed that Mihalkov is unwilling to assist with abducting Amphibian Man and would rather kill it by lethal injection than let the Americans learn from it. 

Feeling macho after perfunctory intercourse with his prim wife Elaine (Lauren Lee Smith), Strickland buys a teal-coloured Cadillac and parks it in the bowels of the research centre, where Zelda has her surreptitious smoke breaks. She notices Elisa sneaking around and wonders what on earth she is up to. While Giles forges a pass to the facility while watching Carmen Miranda performing `Chica Chica Boom Chic' in Irving Cummings's That Night in Rio (1941), Elisa shifts the position of the CCTV cameras. Strickland fails to notice, but Hoffstetler does (while pleading to delay the vivisection) and realises he can trust Elisa to spirit the creature away. Thus, he uses a device to sabotage the generators and uses his syringe to kill an MP blocking Giles at the underground checkpoint. 

Having given Elisa a crash course in how to care for and feed Amphibian Man, Hoffstetler helps her push him to the loading bay in a laundry basket. Against her better judgement, Zelda also lends a hand, as Strickland comes hurtling downstairs to thwart them. However, he arrives only to fire some futile bullets and see the damage the speeding van has done to his new car. He promises Hoyt that he will recover the `asset', but has no idea that he is wallowing in the tub in Giles's apartment until the waters rise in the nearby canal lock and Elisa can release him back into the wild. 

The following day, Strickland interviews the staff and dismisses Elisa and Zelda as the toilet cleaners. Meanwhile, Giles sketches Amphibian Man and wonders if he had a mate in his river, while lamenting the fact that his own life has pretty much passed him by. When he dozes off, however, the creature gets bored and watches Mister Ed on the television before biting the head off Giles's cat when it hisses at him. He barges past the artist and lumbers into the night, But Elisa finds him transfixed by the CinemaScope screen in the empty Orpheum and brings him home. She patches up the wound on Giles's arm and Amphibian Man pets his other cats and apologises for harming his host. But Elisa takes him to her own bathroom for the night and, unable to sleep, strips off to join him in the tub. 

Wearing a red hairband with matching shoes, Elisa traces the water on the bus window and two droplets merge into a single whole. But, while her good mood is matched by Madeleine Peyroux singing `La Javanaise' on the soundtrack, Strickland is more determined than ever to restore his reputation and capture the fugitive. He attempts to intimidate Hoffstetler, but he retains his composure and does so again when Mihalkov comes to his apartment to check that he had disposed of Amphibian Man's corpse. In fact, he is glowing through his blue veins while canoodling with Elisa in the bathroom she has flooded so he can be more comfortable. However, the water seeps through the floorboards and soaks the patrons watching Edmund Goulding's Mardi Gras (1958) and Arzoumanian complains to Giles about the mess. He opens the bathroom door and sees how happy Elisa is as she clings to her lover. Indeed, he also has a little moment of his own, as his hair has started grow on the spot where the creature touched him. 

But Strickland is bent on preventing any happy ever after. Having snapped off his gangrenous finger, he sends Fleming to spy on Hoffstetler, as he suspects him of having stolen the asset. However, when Hoyt comes to his office and gives him 36 hours to sort out the mess he has made, Strickland gets a lesson in the value of decency that makes him realise how disposable he is in the grand scheme of things. Nevertheless, he steels himself to salvage his mission, just as the rains start to come down and the canal begins to fill. Aware that Amphibian Man is starting to suffer, Elisa feeds him hard-boiled eggs and sits across the table from him to summon up the whispered words, `You'll Never Know', before her imagination takes her into a monochrome Fred`n'Ginger world, where she dances with her beaux against a backdrop of studio soundstage stars.

It's clear, however, that the creature is ailing and Zelda urges Elisa to get him to the waterfront as quickly as possible. Giles drives them, but Strickland is on their tail after wheedling the truth out of the dying Hoffstettler. Rather conveniently, Elisa had written the time and place of Amphibian Man's departure on the calendar in her kitchen and Strickland arrives to gun him down. He also shoots Elisa. But Giles knocks him out with a metal post and the revived Amphibian Man slashes across his throat, as police patrol cars roll into view. As Giles looks on, the lovers plunger into the dock, where a kiss enables Elisa to breath in the depths and the pair seem suspended in the green-tinged water, as they prepare to embark upon their new life together. 

Following the grandiose spectacle of Pacific Rim (2013) and Crimson Peak (2015), Del Toro returns to the brand of arthouse fable at which he excelled in The Devil's Backbone (2001) and Pan's Labyrinth (2006). Co-scripting with Vanessa Taylor, he settles for a simple message, as the aqua-man who is dragged out of his natural environment by government agents to be exploited for sinister purposes is contrasted with the black, gay and disabled characters who dwell on the margins of a society that promotes decency without practising it. But, for all the socio-political subtexts that could be plucked from this scenario, this Best Picture winner is essentially a beauty and the beast fairy-tale with its roots in old Hollywood gems like Jack Arnold's Creature From the Black Lagoon (1954).

Yet, by quoting from so many 20th Century-Fox musicals and biblical epics, Del Toro risks reminding us that the former were glossily ersatz facsimiles of the superior pictures being produced in the same genre by MGM, while the latter were widely regarded as empty spectacles designed to lure consumerist Eisenhowerian Americans away from their television sets. This isn't to say that Paul Denham Austerberry's production design and Dan Laustsen's cinematography aren't magnificent in their use of mossy greens and butterscotch browns. Indeed, they have worked a minor miracle in recreating 60s Baltimore on a modest $19 million budget. But style often takes precedence over substance, as Del Toro strains for a significance that the slender storyline isn't always able to accommodate and which prompts him to indulge the more emotively whimsical passages of Alexandre Desplat's score and the more leisurely stretches of Sidney Wolinsky's mid-picture editing 

Some of the characterisation is equally thin, with Shannon's glowering villain feeling a little familiar and Jenkins and Spencer's `outcasts' seeming a touch too tick-boxy. All three give fine performances, although the latter two seem somewhat fortunate to have snagged Best Supporting Oscar nominations, especially when Doug Jones - who had previously collaborated with Del Toro as Abe Sapien in Hellboy (2004) and Hellboy II: The Golden Army (2008) and the Faun and the Pale Man in Pan's Labyrinth (2006) - is so superbly expressive beneath the prosthetics sculpted by Mike Hill, fashioned by Shane Mahan and digitally augmented by Dennis Berardi. His first meeting with Hawkins in the lab tank is particularly charming, although Del Toro deserves credit for making the relationship so sensual and for comparing the tenderness of their love-making with the lustful brusqueness of Shannon's coupling with his wife and the crudeness of his advances on Hawkins. 

Echoing the current furore around high-ranking men abusing their power, this aspect of the plot chimes in with the subtext of `change not always being for the better' that is epitomised by the diner employing faux southern hospitality to sell its Day-Glo pies and by the post-Mad Men ad agency replacing hand-drawn graphics with photography. But Del Toro doesn't dwell on his themes, which is perhaps as well when major moments like Hawkins's signed speech about the creature making her feel alive and accepted come so perilously close to being trite and mawkish. 

Thankfully, her performance is so beautifully judged that both her romance and her rebellion avoid seeming melodramatic. She also eschews winsome sweetness in connecting with the creature and readily embraces the physical side of their liaison. Moreover, she is assured enough to use sign language to tell Shannon what she thinks of him in the knowledge that he can't understand her and that Spencer would never dream of translating her insults and defiance. But, even though Hawkins failed to win the Oscar, this is a memorable performance and deserves to be commended alongside those cited above. 

Although born and bred in London, Martin McDonagh has tended not to set stories in his own backyard. As a playwright, he found fame with the Leenane and Aran Island trilogies, while he filmed his Oscar-winning short, Six Shooter (2004), in Ireland before heading to Belgium for his feature bow, In Bruges (2008). Now, having made Seven Psychopaths (2012) in Los Angeles, McDonagh remains Stateside for Three Billboards Outside of Ebbing, Missouri, a Coenesque exercise in feminist fury and poetic profanity that earned a clutch of Academy Awards nominations, including Best Original Screenplay. Yet, while Frances McDormand and Sam Rockwell took the acting honours, McDonagh has been overlooked in the Best Director category.

Seven months after her daughter Angela (Kathryn Newton) was raped, murdered and set alight, Mildred Hayes (Frances McDormand) becomes so frustrated by the lack of progress being made by Chief Bill Willoughby (Woody Harrelson) that she rents three battered billboards on a quiet road outside Ebbing, Missouri from Red Welby (Caleb Landry Jones). Paying $5000 for the first month, Mildred has the boards painted red and emblazoned with the words: `Raped While Dying', `Still No Arrests' and `How Come, Chief Willoughby?'

Racist cop Jason Dixon (Sam Rockwell) sees the posters on his rounds and calls Willoughby with the bad news on Easter Sunday. The following day, as Mildred drives son Robbie (Lucas Hedges) to school, she sees the furore she has caused, as Willoughby, Dixon and desk sergeant Cedric Connoly (Željko Ivanek) try to intimidate Welby into taking the billboards down. Any hopes they have that the story might blow over are dashed when Mildred goes on the local news and accuses the cops of devoting more time to beating up black folks than investigating her daughter's murder. 

Willoughby pays Mildred a visit and explains that the case is tricky because none of the DNA samples can be matched on the national computer and he has no other obvious clues to follow up. He reminds her that civil rights prevent some of the more extreme methods that she is suggesting before revealing that he is dying of pancreatic cancer. Rather than showing any sympathy, however, Mildred admits that the poster won't be as effective after he croaks, but she still feels she will get value for money. She proves equally curt to Dixon when she finds him threatening Welby during a game of pool at the local bar and rips into Father Montmorency (Nick Searcy) when he calls to let her know that his parishioners feel affronted by the aggressive tone of her campaign. Undaunted, Mildred compares the culpability of Crips and Bloods gang members with those Catholics who say nothing about abusive priests and orders him to leave, much to the embarrassment of her son. 

The next day, Willoughby and Dixon come to the gift shop where Mildred works with Denise (Amanda Warren) to arrest her for drilling a hole in the thumbnail of Geoffrey the dentist (Jerry Winsett), who has lodged an official complaint about the billboards. While waiting to be questioned, Mildred taunts Dixon about his bigoted thuggery and he complains that his mother (Sandy Martin) had to watch those allegations on the news. He barely keeps his temper and Willoughby sends him outside while he asks Mildred why she attacked Geoffrey. She says it's his word against hers, as it often is in rape cases and Willoughby implores her to have a civil conversation. He admits he would like to tie her up in a law suit that would prevent her earning the money to pay for the board rental, but he isn't that petty. Nevertheless, he goads her about having to sell a tractor belonging to her ex-husband, Charlie (John Hawkes), who left her for a much younger woman. Mildred is about to snap back when Willoughby coughs blood on her face and she consoles him before rushing to get help and he repays the favour by releasing her without charge.

As Willoughby jokes with his wife, Anne (Abbie Cornish) about refusing to stay in hospital overnight, Mildred drives home with Robbie. He is angry with her for putting up the billboards, as they ram home his sister's fate and make him feel depressed. Sitting on Angela's bed, Mildred recalls the row she had with her before she went out for the night and she bitterly regrets both the fact that they bickered all the time and that she had refused to lend her the car, so that Angela had to walk home alone. 

Mildred feels nettled, therefore, when Charlie drops in a breakfast time to hector her about getting people's backs up. She needles him about his 19 year-old girlfriend, Penelope (Samara Weaving), and she comes in to use the bathroom in time to see Charlie attempting to throttle Mildred while Robbie holds a knife to his throat. Everyone calms down and Charlie reminds Mildred that he is also grieving. But, when she slams him for his chosen method, he blurts out that Angela had come to see him the week before she had died to ask if she could move in with him, as she could no longer stand living with her mother. Robbie pretends not to know if this is true, but Mildred can see right through him and is angrier with herself than ever before. 

Thus, when Dixon follows his mother's suggestion of getting at Mildred by messing with her friends, she storms into the station to demand that he releases Denise on a trumped up marijuana possession charge. As Willoughby is having a picnic with Anne and their young daughters, Dixon decides to stand up for himself and feels a sense of achievement when Connoly congratulates him for not backing down. But Mildred has no intention of quitting and places some wooden planters beneath the billboards to brighten them up. While she works, a deer wanders towards her and she thanks it for trying to cheer her up. However, she explains that she doesn't believe in reincarnation or afterlifes and knows that Angela is gone forever. Yet, she gets an inkling that someone may be watching over her when Welby summons her to meet a late payment and his assistant, Pamela (Kerry Condon), wanders in with an envelope stuffed with bank bills and an anonymous note urging Mildred to keep up the fight. 

Things are quite so bright for Willoughby, however. Having had a lovely day with his family, he puts his girls to bed and checks on Anne's Chardonnay hangover. She compliments him on his love-making beside the lake and jokes that such coarse remarks can be found in the plays of Oscar Wilde. He goes to feed his horses and proceeds to place a bag over his head and shoot himself. Anne discovers a note on the dining-room table and, as rushes out to see the horses grazing beside her husband's dead body, we hear how Willoughby wished to spare her the agony of seeing him slip away by leaving her with the happy memory of one last glorious day. 

On hearing the news on TV the next morning, Mildred kicks the shins of two schoolkids who throw a can at her car windscreen, while the distraught Dixon storms into Welby's office and pistol whips him before tossing him out of a broken window into the street. He also punches Pamela in the face before returning to the station with a snarling threat to a black man on the pavement outside. However, he turns out to be Abercrombie (Clarke Peters), who has been sent to replace Willoughby and he orders Dixon to surrender his badge and gun before firing him. Trying to remain defiant, Dixon attempts to banter with Connoly, but he suggests he leaves without making a fuss. 

Later that morning, Mildred is alone in the shop when a stranger (Brendan Sexton III) wanders in. He smashes a rabbit ornament and informs her that he was a close friend of Willoughby. She starts to offer her condolences when the man claims that he could also be the one who killed his daughter and he is in the process of wishing he had been when Anne comes into the store. She hands over a letter that her husband had left for Mildred and promises that she doesn't blame her for what has happened. But, as she points to her daughters waiting in the car outside, Anne makes it clear that she will never forgive her for adding to Willoughby's woes in his final days. 

In fact, he has nothing but praise for Mildred and apologises for having made insufficient progress in the case. He also reveals that he paid for the billboards, as he thinks they are a good idea and he genuinely hopes that they help in flushing out the perpetrator. She smiles sadly, as a long, slow train passes the shop and she ponders her next move. This is decided for her, however, when she sees the billboards ablaze, as she drives home with Robbie. She sends him to fetch another fire extinguisher, as she tries to fight the flames and clambers up the ladder at the side of the middle board to aim the nozzle. Abercrombie arrives on the scene, but Mildred is in no mood to chat. 

Dixon feigns to know nothing about the arson attack when his mother quizzes him the next morning. But, when Connoly calls to let him know that Willoughby left him a letter, he agrees to drop into the station after hours to collect it. As he reads about his former boss having faith in his decency and his determination to become a detective, Dixon fails to hear Mildred throwing Molotov cocktails through the broken windows of Welby's office and it's only when one nearly hits him that he realises he is in danger. Grabbing Angela's file off the desk, he jumps to safety and Welby's passing pal. James (Peter Dinklage) uses his jacket to beat out the flames. 

Appalled to see that there was someone in the darkened station, Mildred hangs around to watch the fire crew tackle the blaze and she is grateful when James gives her an alibi by saying they were on a date when Abercrombie asks what she was doing there. Meanwhile, the heavily bandaged Dixon finds himself sharing a hospital room with Welby and tries to apologise for throwing him out of his office window. Welby is dismayed to discover the identity of his roommate, but he pours him a cup of orange juice and gives him a straw. 

Shortly afterwards, bill-sticker Jerome (Darrell Britt-Gibson) gives Mildred a spare set of posters and earns himself a date with the newly released Denise. James helps Mildred and Robbie repair the billboards and they agree to use the one naming Willoughby as a tribute to the man who paid for it. That night, Jerome and Denise go for a drink in a bar, where Dixon is drowning his sorrows. He eavesdrops on the conversation in the neighbouring booth and realises that the stranger who had confronted Mildred in the gift shop is boasting to his buddy about raping Angela. Dixon slips outside to note his licence plate and then picks a fight so that he can get a DNA sample by scratching the man's face. He takes a whooping and staggers home to store his evidence in a sealed tube before cleaning himself up. 

Across town, Mildred has her date with James. However, Charlie arrives with Penelope and can't resist coming to the table to taunt her about going out with a dwarf. He lets slip that he torched the billboards when drunk and returns to his table, leaving Mildred to hurt James's feelings and provoke him into an outburst in which he loudly mentions the police station fire. Picking up the wine bottle, Mildred goes over to Charlie with the intention of clobbering him. But she is disarmed by Penelope's bubble-headed sweetness and cautions him to take care of her, as she is far too good for him. 

The next morning, Dixon comes to the house to let Mildred know about his tussle. She is grateful to him and dares to hope that her nightmare might be over. However, while Abercrombie commends Dixon on his quick thinking, he doesn't invite him to rejoin the force and breaks the news that the stranger had nothing to do with Angela's death. Indeed, he was out of the country with the military at the time and Dixon is too insular to guess where he might have been serving. However, as he prepares to blow his brains out with a shotgun, he calls Mildred to fill her in. He mentions his certainty that the guy is a rapist and they make arrangements to drive to his place in Idaho. As they hit the road, Mildred confesses to fire-bombing the police station, but Dixon is neither surprised nor concerned. However, he admits to having misgivings about killing the stranger and, as the scene fades to black, Mildred suggests they see how they feel when they get there.

Impeccably designed by Inbal Weinberg, photographed by Ben Davis and edited by the Oscar-nominated Jon Gregory, this is a troublingly nuanced snapshot of Trump's America. There are loud echoes of the Sheriff Joe Arpaio case in the depiction of Jason Dixon, while the denunciation of the complicit patriarchy has acquired added significance since the breaking of the sexual harassment scandal. But McDonagh takes a leaf out of Jean Renoir's book in revealing that everyone has their reasons for their attitudes and antics. He demonstrates this with particular finesse during the passage in which Mildred communes with the docile doe and Willoughby instructs his daughters (the delightful Riya May and Selah Atwood) in the rules of the cuddly toy fishing game designed to confine them to a blanket on the shore while their parents sneak off to make love. Indeed, in a film of many poignant images, the shot of the teddy bear on its side in the shallow water after Willoughby commits suicide is the most excruciatingly indelible. 

Despite the danger that the equally excellent Woody Harrelson and Sam Rockwell might take votes off each other, the latter prevailed in the race Best Supporting Actor category, in spite of the justifiable criticism that Dixon's redemption comes without him renouncing his pernicious racism. But Frances McDormand deservedly won Best Actress, as she is outstanding as the gloweringly inconsolable mother seeking to assuage her own guilt by finding somebody else to blame for her rebellious daughter's brutal demise. As for McDonagh being nominated for his script and not his direction, this seems more than a little harsh, as he not only judges the tonal shifts between intense drama and bleak humour to a tee, but he also plays with audience expectation with consummate skill, as he keeps taking the plot in unexpected directions while drawing them into the private lives of the principals. Rarely have sorrow and fury been pitted together with such potency and compassion.

The flashback to show Angela being less than angelic could be considered a misstep, as it's rather on the nose, while the sequence in which Mildred puts on voices to natter to her bunny slippers feels a touch strained. Carter Burwell's score also occasionally overreaches and isn't always as effective as such soundtrack selections as Renée Fleming's rendition of `The Last Rose of Summer', Joan Baez's `The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down' and Amy Annelle's `Buckskin Stallion Blues'. But McDonagh's dialogue is curt and tart and it's delivered with evident relish by the estimable ensemble, who ensure that Ebbing could be paired with Twin Peaks.