Review by James Colt Harrison
“Never give up. Never give in.” That was one of Britain’s Prime Minister Winston Churchill’s famous sayings during the bleakest times of World War II. He had other words of encouragement to “buck up” the civilian population of England and to keep their spirits high. The Brits did have enormous courage in the face of the Nazi bomb’s falling in the middle of London, the food rationing, the deprivation, the terror and the nightmare of expecting the German troops to invade at any minute.
Director Joe Wright has brought forth a splendid look at just one period of time during the war, and that is the Month of May 1940. As a sort of “companion piece” to Kenneth in the War Room in London, deep in the bowels of the underground tunnels that were dug to avoid Hitler’s Luftwaffe.
Churchill had just been elected as Prime Minister after predecessor Neville Chamberlain’s disastrous peace attempt with Hitler. Chamberlain (actor Ronald Pickup) and Viscount Halifax (Stephen Dillane) led all the appeasers against Churchill. They were not supportive of Churchill’s different approach to the monster in Berlin. Even King George VI (the current Queen Elizabeth’s father) played imperiously stiffly by the wonderful Ben Mendelsohn, was not a fan of Winston’s.
We must now make note of the celebrated actor playing Churchill. Gary Oldman, although having had appeared in many hit films such as four Harry Potter films, as rocker Sid Vicious in Sid and Nancy, in the thriller Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy (Oscar® nomination), in the live action The Dark Knight about Batman, as a human in Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, and as a Russian goon The Hitman’s Bodgyguard, he is not all that well-known to American audiences as a movie star. What he is, however, is a well-trained actor from the London stage and one who immerses himself into his roles so completely that hardly anyone knows what the real Gary Oldman looks like.
All of the years of Oldman’s stage training and the more than 67 films have given him the proper background to take on the massive and demanding role of historical icon Winston Churchill. In nearly every scene of the attention-grabbing film, Oldman’s Churchill commanded every appearance he ever made, just as the statesman did in real life. Oldman’s performance is phenomenal, one of the best, if not the best, male performance this year. An Oscar® nomination should be a shoo-in for him, and it will be well-deserved.
Wright cast the film with the cream of the crop (to coin a cliché) of stage and screen actors. Ronald Pickup’s portrayal of the dying Chamberlain is heart-wrenching, and Stephen Dillane’s Viscount Halifax is chillingly evil. Churchill’s wet-behind-the ears and novice secretary Elizabeth Layton is played charmingly by Lily James and the only other significant female in the film is Clementine Churchill, Winston’s long-suffering wife. However, she was strong enough to handle him all those years, and they seemed to genuinely love and need each other. Kristen Scott Thomas, a lovely and beautiful lady of a certain age, portrays “Clemmie” with British reserve and resolve. It’s nice to see Thomas again on screen. One nod to the archaic way women were treated in the 1940s happened when young Ms. Layton was told that no women were allowed in the War Room with all the decision-makers!
Don’t think the film is a stodgy portrayal of a fat old man spouting quotable sayings with a cigar hanging from his mouth. It may be history, but it’s fascinating and funny and attention-grabbing throughout the quickly passing two hours of running time. Toss in a magnificent portrayal by Gary Oldman, and you have an engaging film that will entertain as well as tickle your funny bone.
History buffs, fans of World War II stories.