If you need an actor to play Winston Churchill look no further than Harry Potter. The great Gary Oldman is the fifth man to play the wartime PM relatively recently after Timothy Spall, Robert Hardy, Michael Gambon and Brendan Gleeson, and he certainly has the gravitas to carry it off. That’s evidenced by his recent Golden Globe win and BAFTA nomination (the film also scored another eight nominations). Despite that, what he doesn’t have is a script that helps him out much, or a director who brings the story to life. A shame, as it could have been so much more, set during a pivotal month in WWII.
This is apparently the passion project of writer Anthony McCarten, but quite what he is trying to tease out of the well-worn story remains something of a mystery. He also plays fast and loose with history – the idea that Churchill was befriended by his best mate the King seems a stretch, as does the idea that most of Parliament wanted to do a deal with Hitler – some did certainly, but not the majority. Another idea, that a doubting Churchill was buoyed by taking a tube train and is roused by the voices of the people, is frankly ludicrous. Some truly dodgy acting by extras doesn’t help.
To try and throw a little sex appeal in there we get Lily James’ secretary, who does little but run around after Churchill with her typewriter, giggling and occasionally looking at a photo of her brother, in jeopardy on the beach at Dunkirk. There’s an awful lot of looking at maps, montages of Hitler’s troops marching through France and Churchill looking pensive, but how many times have we seen it before?
We also get all the clichés – the cigar, the brandy with breakfast, the bottles of champagne, the V-signs, and of course it all leads up to the famous “fight them on the beaches” speech. Kristin Scott Thomas, playing his wife, still thinks she’s playing the Queen, having played her in the West End for too long, and Stephen Dillane’s Viscount Halifax, who wants to do a deal with the dastardly Mussolini, should have a twirly moustache and a cape.[bgpadvert]
The sad footnote to the film is that John Hurt was due to play Neville Chamberlain, but died during filming without ever actually placing foot on the set. His part is played with grace by Ronald Pickup, ironically portraying a man ravaged by cancer.
It’s a strange film in many ways, playing more as a way to explain the events of May 1940 to an early learner with little interest in the War. It’s a shame, as Oldman clearly relishes his moment as the famous PM. Saddled with a script that references his famous way with words but provides little evidence of it, he is charming, irascible, loves his food and booze as much as he loves his people – and detests that “tyrant” Hitler. It’s passionate stuff, just such a shame he fires in a film that overall is such a damp squib.
Joe Wright has a strange CV, a list which looks terribly worthy and literary on paper but which are a slog to get through. This is more evidence he is a director who is more meat and potatoes than one of Churchill’s fine dinners.
Overall Verdict: A tour de force from Gary Oldman as Churchill can’t lift the film above made-for-TV territory.
Reviewer: Mike Martin