First Hit: Maybe the brightest and best two hours in the theater this year.
If my memory serves me correctly, my middle school history teachers painted Winston Churchill as a roundish, heavyset, and controversial bull-doggish sort of man who saved England from Nazi Germany. But what did that really mean? How did he do this? This film sorts out the enigmatic view I had of him.
What this movie does is shine a light on a controversial 3-week period in England’s history about whether to negotiate a peace agreement with Nazi Germany or to fight them to the end.
When the film begins Neville Chamberlain (Ronald Pickup) is losing the support of Parliament’s conservative party and Foreign Secretary, Lord Halifax (Stephen Dillane) doesn’t want to be elevated to Prime Minister while he’s pushing for a negotiated peace. Parliament is in an uproar and King George VI (Ben Mendelsohn) is deeply concerned about his country.
Chamberlain floats and gets traction for the idea to hand over conservative power to Winston Churchill (Gary Oldman). Being a controversial person, not well liked by anyone, the conservatives figure if Churchill fails then Halifax and his solution will step up to save England from what is happening in Europe, wide-spread destruction and surrender.
Churchill’s reputation as being difficult and having backed failed campaigns in Africa and Gallipoli proceeds his ascension to Prime Minister. But as he would state in his defense, these campaigns weren’t all his doing. He also had backed England returning the Pound to a pre-WWI gold standard parity, which had caused its fair share of problems.
When summoned to accept the position of Prime Minister from King George, the clock starts and the film effectively marks the passage of the days and decisions by displaying the day and month prominently every so often.
What makes the situation so incredibly difficult is that most of England’s active army has been corralled onto the beach at Dunkirk with the German army closing in. England’s ships have been all but destroyed by the Germans, their airplanes have been mostly shot down by the superior German Luftwaffe and last but not least, the United States has vowed to stay out of the war to this point and cannot assist England. This last item is poignantly shared in a desperate phone call Churchill places to President Roosevelt.
To save as many of their troops as possible, Churchill sends out a command asking all private boat owners having boats from 30 – 100’ long, to set sail to Dunkirk to save the British troops. (Note: See one of the other best films to be released earlier this year Dunkirk to witness this amazing event.)
In a moment of desperation Churchill asks Halifax to begin exploring a negotiated peace with Nazi Germany. But as Winston was known to do, he deviated from the script and reached out to the people of England to ask what they wanted him to do. As we all know, he chose the path of “We will never, never, never surrender.”
The way this film is shot, we believe we’re in the early 1940’s. The darkness of the time is expressed though spending a lot of time in small underground rooms and darkened hallways moving with him as he finds a way through his own dark depressive drinking way of creating his answers through the inspirational speeches and talks he gives. The final speech he gives to Parliament is frightfully stirring. I also loved how he made England sound big and small by referring to it as an island instead of a country.
That Churchill drank all the time, smoked cigars, and was depression prone was duly present, but the strength, power, and encouragement he brought to his country shines through from beginning to end.
Oldman quite simply is the best actor in a lead role this year. His embodiment of Churchill is full, complete, and by every measure extraordinary. Lilly James as Elizabeth Layton, Churchill’s assistant, typist, and confidant was sublime. Her enthusiasm, struggle and devotion was the heart this film sits upon. Mendelsohn was perfect as the stuff-ish King George VI who learned to embrace and trust Churchill. When he shared with Winston that his family, the royals, wanted to know if they needed to exile to Canada, the bond was made. Kristen Scott Thomas (as Churchill's’ wife Clementine) was wonderful. She provided support when needed and was a perfect sounding board for Winston. Dillane was strong as Viscount Halifax, who didn’t think England stood a chance and believed that a negotiated peace was the best way to save the people, culture and country. Anthony McCarten wrote an amazingly rich script. The dialogue perfectly reflected the times. Joe Wright’s direction was sublime. The story was told with genuine care and creates power of the decisions made at the time. What made it even better was I wanted the film to go on and tell me more of the story.
Overall: This is truly a contender for best film of the year.