This British political film tells the story of Winston Churchill’s first days in office as Prime Minister of Britain at a time that was crucially important for his country. The film starts with scenes of Members of the British Parliament screaming for the resignation of Neville Chamberlain (Ronald Pickup). Parliament handed power to an unpredictable, Winston Churchill (Gary Oldman), who was notably absent from the screaming throng, some would say because of ambition.
Churchill was called to serve because the opposition would accept no other candidate, and within days of becoming Prime Minister he faced enormous conflict. He had to decide between pursuing a peace treaty with Nazi Germany, or taking a stand to uphold the ideals he knew were dear to the British nation. He had a Parliament to convince, as well as King George VI (Ben Mendelsohn) who was initially hostile to him, but moved later to support him. Both knew that the public had to be on Churchill’s side. The majority of the action takes place in the halls of the British Parliament and underground war rooms, and not on the battle fields of World War II. In the film, no shot is fired.
In making his decision, Churchill faced a public that was unaware of what was happening around it, an insecure King who was skeptical about the wisdom of taking positive action, and those in his own party who were plotting to replace him. The risks of action were great. Germany was poised at the point of invasion and many considered he had no alternative but to negotiate. It was Britain’s “Darkest Hour”, and the threat of invasion loomed. The Allied army was cornered on the beaches of Dunkirk, and the fate of Western Europe hung in the balance.
As Winston Churchill, Gary Oldman captures remarkably well the oratorical grandeur of Churchill, as well as his moments of self-doubt. Oldman delivers a bravura performance that entertains as much as it educates. His characterisation masterfully bridges the gap between a man who liked his liquor too much, and a respected statesman who had the ability to stir the British public to defiance. He stirred the nation gloriously in his famous “We shall fight (them) on the beaches….” speech, that was delivered to the British House of Commons on June 4, 1940, and which is featured in the final moments of the film.
Oldman gives a dynamic, personal, almost caricatured interpretation of Churchill, and he impersonates a man who always knew he had the support, loyalty, and understanding of his tolerant and loving wife, Clementine (Kristin Scott Thomas). The film wittily shows Clementine taking Churchill’s measure, which Churchill never failed to appreciate. Oldman’s characterisation is a beguiling account of Churchill’s darkest hour, and it tells us forcibly that he had enemies at home in Neville Chamberlain and Lord Halifax (Stephen Dillane), as he had away from Britain in Hitler and Mussolini.
The movie recounts a critical period in British history with energy, and narrative force. The film stresses the power of words, which gives it a strong theatrical quality. This is not a movie that focuses on military action, that was so relevant to Christopher Nolan’s WWII epic, “Dunkirk” (2017). Here, Oldman shouts his way through Churchill’s conflicts, and his words inspire.
The style of direction by Joe Wright brings fluidity to the action, and the movie’s direction underscores the humour evident in Oldman’s spirited performance as Churchill. This is a patriotic movie that aims to entertain, and a particular feature of the movie is the power of its musical score which accompanies the emotions communicated by characters’ actions.
The film is enjoyable cinema. It projects Winston Churchill as a significant world figure of great historical importance, in a very memorable and entertaining way. And it is Oldman’s film.
Peter W. Sheehan is Associate of the Australian Catholic Office for Film and Broadcasting.
Review by the Australian Catholic Office for Film and Broadcasting