Another film about Winston Churchill? It needed a very fine director like Joe Wright to raise it to the high interest level - and he's achieved it. But it's Gary Oldman's extraordinary physical transformation which makes this depiction of the man little less than sensational. He'd have been one of the last people in the profession who I'd have thought could have pulled it off this successfully.
Confined to the days preceding and following Churchill's appointment as Prime Minister, it covers his first major challenge, the 'baptism of fire' which was Dunkirk (May 1940) when almost the entire British army, stranded on the northern French coast, was threatened with wholesale annihilation.
It's a very wordy film with minimal actual pictorial 'action'. Two-thirds of the way through I found myself feeling exhausted with the relentless ins and outs of politics and arguments over war policy and campaign tactics, dominated by whether the country ought to accept a Mussolini-offered peace intervention with the Nazi regime in order to prevent impending slaughter.
Oldman works miracles with his towering and believable performance under all that make-up, though you can still discern that characteristic twinkle in his eyes and the shadow of a smile on his lips - which may actually have been authentic as regards the man he's playing for all I know.
Everyone else in the cast takes a back seat, even Kristin Scott Thomas as his dutiful but sternly loyal wife, Clemmie. Remarkable as she always is, she doesn't have much to do other than offer support to the P.M. in a few scenes, none of which is extended very far.
Much the same applies to Lily James as his faithful, patient secretary, obedient to a fault.
Among the rest of a strong cast it was good to see stalwart Ronald Pickup as outgoing Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain, a more substantial role than we've seen Pickup in for many a year.
Ben Mendelsohn as King George VI is also deserving of mention.
There was one cheesy episode, an invented scene where Churchill, exasperated with the slow progress of his taxi in traffic-clogged London streets, gets out, and alone and unprotected, decides to use the underground system to get to Parliament. In the train carriage everyone immediately recognises him. (Would they, considering that then hardly anyone had a TV? Would the odd newspaper photo have been enough? Then there'd also be cinema newsreels, I suppose, so maybe.) During this time, in what must be the longest one-stop underground journey in central London ever, they all show him solid support, giving him the confidence to banish any doubts he had about his actions. At this point I half expected someone to start humming the 'God Save the King' (or better still - 'There'll Always be an England'), only for others to gradually take it up, standing erect, and ending in a free-for-all sing-along - the sort of thing that would happen only too readily in a film of the 1940s or 50s.
Having just won the Golden Globe for Best Actor, Gary Oldman must surely win the equivalent upcoming BAFTA prize. It would hardly do for him, who has not yet won any film acting award, to be overlooked when a non-British organisation has awarded him this prestige. But it would be well deserved - he's never been better, and very few other actors have been this good!
This film confirms Joe Wright as one of my favourite younger directors, following his remarkable 'Atonement' (2007) and 'Anna Karenina' (2012). He has a lively imagination and a keen eye, always seeking to avoid the hackneyed. His mastery of the film medium, despite this being a highly verbalised film, is practically flawless - and he's still so young!
For the first hour or so of this two-hour film I might have been inclined to award it a rating of '8', equal to yesterday's viewing. But then an aural exhaustion started setting in and by the end my opinion had sagged slightly. Even so, I must score it almost as high if only for Gary Oldman's extraordinary appearance and incredible performance.............7.5.
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