Released: 11th January 2018
Seen: 14th January 2018
Directed by: Joe Wright
Written by: Anthony McCarten
Produced by: Perfect World Pictures & Working Title Films
Starring: Gary Oldman, Kristin Scott Thomas, Ben Mendelsohn & Lily James
Last year the film Dunkirk placed the audience on the beaches with the soldiers, in the plane with a fighter pilot and in an army of boats alongside civilians going to rescue those who were trapped. What it didn’t do was show the man who made the order to send those boats, but here we are a year on and now it’s time to tell the tale of the man who had one job… to lead his nation in the fight against history’s greatest monster and this may be one of the better renditions of his story. The film begins with Neville Chamberlain (Played by Ronald Pickup) being forced to step down when the Parliament has lost all confidence in him. In order to try and create a complete government, the ruling party picks Winston Churchill (Played by Gary Oldman) to take over the top job and what follows is a internal battle in that ruling party between high ranking members who wish to broker peace, and Winston who plans to go right up to Hitler’s door and punch him in the neck as hard as he can. It’s a fascinating struggle to go between the diplomatic concept of surrender with negotiations and the emotional response of “Stuff the Nazis”.
Oldman has a knack for playing amazing characters under heavy prosthetics but this might be his finest work. He doesn’t just portray Churchill, he wears the man like a suit that fits him perfectly. Every single inflection, every look, every uneven step supported by a cane is pure Churchill. He commands the audience’s attention with a single glance and it’s clear by how he’s portrayed that the man did not lack for charisma. He had it in shovel fulls that he threw about when needed. He also was not afraid to call out someone for being an idiot and clearly could take a suggestion, up to a point. He also captures that infamous sense of humour that Churchill is well known for, his oratory ability is one of the first things that people think about when they think of Churchill and Oldman absolutely captures that. Also, while I know it’s probably not important to point this out, his prosthetics are incredible. There are several moments of long lingering close-ups on his face and I swear if you told me that Oldman just got fat for this part, I’d buy it. It’s a complete transformation into this character that he pulls off wonderfully.
He’s aided by an absolutely spectacular supporting cast. Churchill’s wife Clementine is played by Kristin Scott Thomas and she is a sheer delight as the wife of the man who would be charged with saving the country. Her scenes are few but she creates such a presence and in a few looks we know her life with Churchill wasn’t easy, but she clearly adores him and makes it work. Also clearly she’s as witty as him, Kristin creates this perfect match with merely a few looks, it’s wonderful. Lily James as Churchill’s secretary Elizabeth Layton is also a delight, she’s our way of looking at this man through fresh eyes and has the daunting task of helping us, as the audience, see beyond the legend. Her job may be to take dictation but it’s also to try and understand what Churchill is thinking and thus let the audience in on that. She get’s some of the best scenes including one particular moment in the map room where Churchill tells her the truth of what’s on the way in a particularly powerful moment by all concerned. Even though this film doesn’t really need an ‘antagonist’, it get’s one in the form of Lord Halifax, played by Stephen Dillane. It’s strange to suggest him as the antagonist considering that his role is to repeatedly bring up the idea of peace talks but considering he’s suggesting they make nice with Hitler, I kind of think he fits that role in this story and Dillane plays it perfectly. He clearly thinks his way is the right way, he clearly believes that the only way they were going to go out was to try and find a way to find the very fine people approaching them with weapons drawn. He doesn’t seem to understand that fascists aren’t able to be negotiated with and seeing him trying to get Churchill on his side is captivating and infuriating.
Cinematically speaking, this film just oozes style that bolsters it’s substance to a higher level. The camera moves around with precision that is just incredible. Shots from Churchill’s drive into parliament are slow and methodical, showing the people going about their and the unnerving calmness of the outside world while inside, Churchill is risking everything. There’s a large number of shots in total darkness, save for a single light on Churchill to expose his isolation as the only one to stand against the darkness that threatened to envelop them all. I feel like a film student could write a thesis just on the meanings behind every shot, they all have a purpose and they all blend together seamlessly. It’s hard to find a single frame of the film that could be improved, Joe Wright clearly picked the best DP and worked with him tirelessly to create a visual marvel of a movie that is mostly about people talking. It’s insanely difficult to make a political drama visually interesting just because, by virtue of it’s content, it can be boiled down to “A bunch of people yell at each other” but this film is visually gorgeous.
The entire film gives me the same feeling that I got when I watched The Post. It’s a film that has it’s meaning expanded by the context of modern times. 5 years ago a film like this would be just about Churchill and maybe it still is, maybe I’m reading into thing a bit too much (Shocker). However, today it feels as though it’s a reminder that standing up to fascism may not be easy, it may not be liked, it may not even seem possible but it’s required. It’s always required to stand up to fascists, to Nazi’s, to villains and Churchill knew this and the film explains it meticulously in glorious visuals and expertly delivered dialogue.
This is the kind of film designed to get critical praise and it deserves it. It’s the kind of film made so it can win an award, it deserves those too. It’s also the third film of this year I’m going to give this score too and it feels like a copout, but when you can’t find a single flaw in the film then there’s only one set of numbers that you can use to describe it.