Director: Joe Wright
Written by: Anthony McCarten
Cast: Gary Oldman, Kristin Scott Thomas, Ben Mendelsohn, Lilly James, Ronald Pickup, Stephen Dillane
Screened at: NYC
Opens: November 22, 2017
Consider this: “Never give in – never, never, never, never, in nothing great or small, large or petty, never give in except to convictions of honour and good sense. Never yield to force; never yield to the apparently overwhelming might of the enemy.” Now consider, “I have nothing to offer but blood, toil, tears and sweat.” These are two of the many classic quotes of Winston Churchill, who with the possible exception of Franklin Delano Roosevelt was the greatest political figure of the twentieth century. Even I, a seven-year-old kid during the World War 2, was inspired. Compare that to the inspirational quotes of our own leader: “Nobody respects women more than me.” And “I just start kissing them. It’s like a magnet. Just kiss. I don’t even wait. And when you’re a star, they let you do it. There’s “Get that son of a bitch off the field.” Yet Trump and Churchill might have something in common: a movie about Trump could use the same title as this one.
Joe Wright, whose “Atonement” probed the evil teen who accused her older sister’s lover of a crime he did not commit, now digs into the character of Winston Churchill. He was a man not known to surrender, not even to give in when neither Tories nor Labor were overly excited about him. According to Joe Wright, working marvels with Anthony McCarten’s script, the Great Man was picked by the Commons as the only candidate not hopelessly opposed by the two parties. The House of Common, depicted here via Seamus McGarvey’s lenses, appears as a model of democracy—or of mob rule, depending on whether you prefer the authoritarian of Kim Jong-Un’s rubber-stamp parliament as something to be emulated instead.
While “Darkest House” takes place in the early days of World War 2 in 1940 when the U.S. is hobbled by a plea of neutrality, there is little archival film of the violence in Europe, just a few token bombs. The UK looks in that year as an island untouched by the Luftwaffe giving Churchill the time to show us his character with all the doubts, the hesitations in speech, the ultimate fiery call to arms against advisers who urge him to ask Italy to negotiate British independence from Germany. Hitler had already conquered Norway, his troops busy in Belgium and France, but hundreds of thousands of British soldiers were encircled in France by large German armies. It is in this unfortunate dilemma that Churchill had to make up his mind whether to fight or negotiate believing that most of the British armies could be doomed. (The Dunkirk ploy which saved all but a relative handful of Brits thanks to England’s use of civilian boats is the subject this year of Christopher Nolan’s “Dunkirk,” which some consider a major contended for year-end best-picture awards.)
Gary Oldman might be considered an odd choice for a major role like this one. He is frequently covered in villainous cloaks. Lee Harvey Oswald in Oliver Stone’s “JFK.” A sadistic prison warden in “Murder in the First.” A corporate tyrant in “The Fifth Element.” Furthermore as Mason Verger, the only survivor of Hannibal Lecter’s string of murders, he spent six hours daily in the make-up room, which more than qualifies him now as almost unrecognizable. In fact it’s only when you know that he appears with black-framed glasses hanging from his nose (though not as far down as Chuck Schumer’s), wispy gray hair, a considerable paunch, he looks quite a bit like the type of person who would be the king’s first minister during these perilous times. He drinks brandy copiously, putting the glass down only to substitute a long, lit cigar. He talks slowly, hesitantly, as though tipsy from the booze. (One wag blogged that W.C. spent the war hammered.) Notwithstanding Churchill’s lack of Brad Pitt’s looks he is adored by his wife Clementine (Kristin Scott Thomas spending too few minutes on stage). He is looked up to by his regular typist, Elizabeth Layton (Lily James), who understands that his stomping and insults are a mere mask for his dependence and devotion to her.
When Churchill appears before King George VI (Ben Mendelsohn) to receive his appointment as Prime Minister, he can sense that the monarch would have preferred someone else but had no choice. Frequent looks at the business of the House of Commons gives the parliamentary body the look of a painting, maybe Trumbull’s “The Declaration of Independence,” except that instead of just a few important looking fellows insisting on leaving the British fold, Joe Wright has scores, maybe hundreds of extras on the floor and in the gallery. Toward the conclusion, we hear Churchill’s rousing call to arms, which brings cheers from both aisles in parliament, shown by a British custom of waving papers back and forth in the hands as though streaming confetti all over the floor.
There is one scene, corny I guess, something I doubt its actual occurrence in 1940, yet this light moment is the most lovable of the picture. Churchill is actually riding a train in the Underground unencumbered by any staff or security. Passengers are stunned. They stand throughout the car as though witnessing a visit by the king. He asks them questions, folks from all races and classes, seeking to find a consensus. Should we fight or should we negotiate? Who cares about opinions of the House of Commons? The ordinary people unanimously call for a fight, and one passenger, a black man, finishes a quote borrowed from Shakespeare. This, not the parliament or the king, is demos, the Greek word denoting rule by the people. This is democracy in its purest form.
Unrated. 125 minutes. © Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online
Comments, readers? Agree? Disagree? Why?
Acting – A-
Technical – B+