My notes on the Churchill biopic, due in cinemas January 12.
I guess we have to assume it has something to do with the era of Brexit, but – seriously – how come Darkest Hour, Dunkirk, Their Finest and Churchill get made in the same year? It’s as if the movie gods were planning a themed all-nighter in some revived version of the Scala – and, for what it’s worth, none of these are truly triumphalist or tub-thumping, and they might well make an interesting compare-and-contrast with, say, a run including World Trade Center, American Sniper, The Hurt Locker and Zero Dark Thirty for addressing wars with a mix of heroic celebration and nuanced hindsight. And all of them could be watched by Daily Mail readers or Fox TV viewers through filtered specs that strip out the ambiguities to home in on the valorisation of good guys nobly taking a pasting while determined to come out on top in the end. Directed by Joe Wright – officially a major British filmmaker, though I always have to check his credits to see which national heritage projects he’s actually made – and scripted by Anthony McCarten, whose eclectic CV includes Worzel Gummidge Down Other, Death of a Superhero (from his own novel) and The Theory of Everything, this follows Winston Churchill (Gary Oldman) from his ascent to leader of the Conservative Party (and, without being elected, Prime Minister) through the Fall of France to the ‘we shall fight them on the beaches’ speech. It’s left to captions at the end to confirm that – spoiler! – the allies eventually won the war.
Oddly, the film that most seems to have influenced McCarten and Wright is Downfall, as the initial viewpoint character is Elizabeth Layton (Lily James), a trembling young secretary who survives being blustered at by Winston and staunchly types through the tears (she has a brother most likely killed in an action Churchill has specifically ordered) as the sacred monster-whale rumbles through darkened rooms (this takes its title dead literally) and tosses off his greatest hits quotes (everyone around him shares this habit) while showing some private doubt. Just like Oliver Stone’s Nixon, this Winston eventually goes out among regular folks and samples Great British public opinion on a tube train before deciding that he has been right all along to insist on a policy of not negotiating a peace with Herr Hitler. The baddie of this version of history isn’t a Nazi but Viscount Halifax (Stephen Dillane), who keeps urging a course of appeasement well after the position has been abandoned by an ailing but dignified Neville Chamberlian (Ronald Pickup). There’s little room for complicated depictions of by-no-means-uncontroversial supporting politicos, so we only glimpse Attlee (David Schofield) while Anthony Eden (Samuel West) plays loyal sidekick until even he wavers in the face of what seems a likely catastrophic defeat. Clemmie (Kristin Scott Thomas) counsels wisely and gets Churchill to moderate his growly bear attitudes – this seesaws between viewing its hero as an emotional drunk and a canny politico – and the King (Ben Mendelsohn) overcomes his resistance to the new PM the way he’s conquered his still quite evident stutter (maybe The King’s Speech could be the prequel to the series suggested above). It’s mostly character actors in gloomy rooms talking to each other, but there are a few zooms through darkened battlefields – and we get that big CGI vista of a sea full of boats headed for Dunkirk that Christopher Nolan resisted showing.
The real victory, of course, is Oldman’s – inhabiting a remarkable job of prosthetics that probably weighs as much as John Hurt’s Elephant Man face, but projecting through all the layers and managing considerably more than the mere impersonations or representations of Churchill Timothy Spall or Ian McNeice have done lately. Oldman’s mouth constantly works, as he even breathes like Churchill and he manages that childish pout well – at one point, he acknowledges the truth of the saying that all babies look like him – but he makes the private Churchill convincing, with his barks of laughter and crudity (delighted that the reverse V sign he flashes the press also means ‘up your bum’) and near-collapses into teary blubberiness at the possibility that the big job he has landed has come to late for him to do anything but go down with the ship. I imagine there will be queues of historians lining up to footnote inaccuracies or elisions, but the most obviously contrived movie scene – the great man takes a tube train (needing instructions from a small girl on how to read the map) and chats with representative little Britons – is plainly designed to address 2017 more than 1940, with an interracial couple accepted by all the other passengers (if Churchill gave a shit about what black Britons thought, it’s news to me) and a lot of decent timid folk swearing to fight to the death against … what? I imagine that, as with Dunkirk, Nigel Farage and Jeremy Corbyn and Richard Attenborough and David Lammy and Theresa May and Laurie Penny can all watch this and equate a resolute stand against Nazi Germany with their own causes.
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