Bil’s rating (out of 5): BB.5. Working Title Films. United Kingdom, 2017. Screenplay by Anthony McCarten. Cinematography by Bruno Delbonnel. Produced by Tim Bevan, Lisa Bruce, Eric Fellner, Anthony McCarten, Douglas Urbanski. Music by Dario Marianelli. Production Design by Sarah Greenwood. Costume Design by Jacqueline Durran. Film Editing by Valerio Bonelli. Academy Awards 2017. Golden Globe Awards 2017. Toronto International Film Festival 2017.
With the Nazi threat swallowing more territory on the continent every day, England is nervous about the best way to keep her own independence and security intact. While some want to hold peace talks with Herr Hitler, fully believing that they can come to a gentleman’s agreement with him, others believe that ailing prime minister Neville Chamberlain (Ronald Pickup) must step down to make way for the far more robust and energetic Winston Churchill (Gary Oldman). The man famed for his wit and rhetoric happily takes the position and immediately makes his feelings known: negotiation with Germany is pointless and England must fight for victory. His beating the drums of battle does not go over well, and with the crisis of Dunkirk worrying the country around the clock, it appears that his popularity will need something to be a success if he’s ever going to prove the Walter Mosleys of the world wrong. Kristin Scott Thomas has some lovely moments as Clementine Churchill, a wife and partner who resents having to take second place to the man’s career but gives him support regardless; it’s what someone once referred to as the “Honey, come to bed” role, and director Joe Wright doesn’t give it muc more narrative weight than that, but Scott Thomas radiates so much intelligence and integrity that it reads beautifully anyway. Lily James makes even more of an impression as Elizabeth Layton, Churchill’s secretary, and she also represents where the film goes the most astray: Anthony McCarten’s screenplay sets us up for Layton and Churchill’s professional relationship being the framework of the story (it opens with her taking the job and having to learn to deal with his boorish personality the hard way) but then drops her scenes in favour of a lot of long-winded speeches in cabinets and radio studios. Oldman is impressively accurate as Churchill, but the performance is far more achieved by the superb makeup work then by anything we can see in his latex-smothered eyes; it’s a rather soulless performance in a heartless film, one that beautifully photographs the Great Moments In History it presents but saps them of any emotion, particularly when we reach the overdue ending and are delivered one speech too many. With so many Churchill biographies already out there (the best of them that I have seen still the cable film The Gathering Storm starring Albert Finney), there’s no reason the film couldn’t have focused on something sharper and smaller than his work resume: the private struggles in contrast to the public persona, particularly as developed in his sessions with his secretary, would be more interesting, or perhaps exploring the idea of his abandoning aristocratic notions of gentlemanly wars in the face of a true monster like Hitler taking over the world (as Powell and Pressburger contemplated in The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp). All that said, the film is not a worthless experience, as there is a delightful and moving sequence in which Churchill rides the Underground that is truly worth every penny of your ticket; it’s one of the few moments that the film allows Oldman to display the man’s actual charm and not just his awe-inspiring noise.