Greetings again from the darkness. Cinematic historical dramas, by definition, face the challenge of overcoming a known and documented outcome. Director Joe Wright (ATONEMENT) and writer Anthony McCarten (Oscar nominated for THE THEORY OF EVERYTHING) attempt to re-create the tension-packed few days that literally changed the course of history and the free world.
It’s May 9, 1940 and the film takes us through the next 3 weeks of political wrangling that begins with Winston Churchill (Gary Oldman) being named Prime Minister almost by default, as he’s the only candidate acceptable to both parties to replace an ill and weak war time leader Neville Chamberlain (Ronald Pickup). Even King George VI (Ben Mendelsohn) is skeptical of Churchill and prefers Lord Halifax (Stephen Dillane), his friend who is likely better suited as Churchill’s adversary and a contrarian than as the actual decision-maker in this crucial time.
Uncertainty abounds within the government and the top priority of debate is whether to negotiate a peace treaty with Hitler and Nazi Germany, or fight on against seemingly impossible odds in hope of maintaining the nation’s freedom. Perspective is required here, as at this point, Germany was viewed as an unstoppable military force with Hitler as the leader. The war atrocities and his despicable vision were not yet fully understood. FDR and the United States declined to help and Churchill had few allies inside or outside his country.
We can talk all you’d like about history, but more than anything, this is a showcase for the best working actor who has never won an Oscar, Gary Oldman. This is an actor who has played Lee Harvey Oswald and Sid Vicious, and probably should have won the award in 2012 for TINKER TAILOR SOLDIER SPY. Earlier this year, I was impressed with Brian Cox as the lead in CHURCHILL (which was set four years later), but Oldman’s Churchill looks, sounds and moves like the real thing. We see the familiar profile and silhouette in numerous shots, and it’s actually kind of thrilling.
The always great Kristin Scott Thomas plays wife Clementine, and she shines in her too few scenes. Lily James plays Elizabeth Layton, Churchill’s bright-eyed secretary and confidant, and she has a couple of nice exchanges with Winston – especially the one explaining the “V” hand gesture. Another favorite line has a character state, “I love to listen to him. He has 100 ideas every day … 4 of which are good … 96 of which are dangerous.” It’s this type of writing that emphasizes the opposite approaches between this film and Christopher Nolan’s DUNKIRK, which utilized minimal dialogue as opposed to the emphasis on words taken by Mr. Wright’s film.
We go inside the House of Commons to experience real political gamesmanship, and see the hectic activities inside the war room as typewriters are being pounded while strategies and alliances are being formed. It’s an example of politics driven by a fear of action (by most) while there is a touch of hero worship as Churchill stands alone for much of the film. Some creative license is taken as Churchill rides the Underground (subway) in order to connect with citizens and take their pulse on war … despite most having no clue just how desperate things are. We see tremendous and tragic shots of Calais, and the wide range of camera work really stands out thanks to cinematographer Bruno Delbonnel, who also masters the indoor lighting and shading.
Operation Dynamo at Dunkirk is discussed briefly (this would be the perfect companion piece to Christopher Nolan’s masterpiece from earlier this year), but mostly this is the personalization of those who politicize war. The good and bad of history is made up of people, good and bad. Yes, there are a few too many Hollywood moments here, but Oldman does capture the pressure, isolation and belief of the historical figure who helped save a country, and perhaps the world. We hear two of Churchill’s most famous speeches: the “Never Surrender” speech to Parliament and “We shall fight them on the beaches …” prompted by the red glow of the “on air” radio light. There are many published books that provide more detail, but Oldman’s performance does guide us through what the Prime Minister must have gone through … and that’s worth a ticket and a gold statue.
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