(2017) (Directed by Joe Wright) –
For high drama, it would be hard to beat the events of May and June 1940, when Churchill, newly-installed as Prime Minister in charge of a wartime coalition cabinet and facing the rampaging German army just across the English channel, had to confront the possibility of the total defeat of his defences, the scuttling of his navy, and invasion of his sceptered isle. There was pressure on Winston to sue for peace but he drew on his natural bellicosity, pugnacity and good sense to resist that siren’s lure and declared that England would fight on, “if necessary for years, if necessary alone.” It is one of the great speeches of history of which The Varnished Culture has written before, so it is sad to see it very badly fumbled here.
Gary Oldman plays Churchill like a cross between Micawber and old Mr Grace from Are You Being Served? – he twinkles, he rages, he makes over-optimistic predictions – and whilst you’d concede it as a performance of competence, he doesn’t capture the essence of the great man, not by a long chalk. Instead, we have endless exposition and back-story, and when history fails to fill the bill, the screenwriter engages in fantasy fiction.
We have a nervous new personal secretary (Lily James, the allied version of the bunker stenographer from Downfall), mangling dictation but handing Winston his King’s summons; a non-stuttering George VI (Ben Mendelsohn, rather good as always), expressing dismay at his new PM’s drinking habits and lack of title; meanwhile Kristen Scott Thomas, as Clementine Churchill, essentially reprises her role from Four Weddings and a Funeral, with a dash of Helena Bonham Carter from The King’s Speech whisked-in. Stephen Dillane as Halifax is silkily intimidating and effective as Halifax. You can’t honestly rubbish the playing, but it all rings false; glossy and false.
The culprit is the script. We’re served-up numerous Tories tut-tutting about how unsound Winston is. Halifax and Chamberlain are gulping down the pasta with Mussolini’s minions, trying to cut a deal. They are ready to have Churchill rolled in a non-confidence vote, with the Viscount poised to assume stewardship of Blighty as some sort of western Gauleiter, Oswald Moseley alongside as a factotum no doubt. George VI visits and encourages the PM to consult the people. This he does by taking the tube to Westminster Station, sounding out the passengers as to whether they will fight or yield. By the time his fellow commuters have said their spirited piece, Churchill is emboldened, and makes his speech. Yay! cue credits!
But there is a fundamental problem here. This scenario is ludicrous. Churchill was always a contentious figure, certainly, but he had plenty of friends, and he’d been consistently correct about Hitler. Plenty of Tories who wanted him to replace Chamberlain. There is no evidence Chamberlain and Halifax were treating with Hitler or circling about Churchill’s premiership with a view to a coup. George VI didn’t ‘drop in’ on anyone and he was no believer in mob rule. As for Churchill taking soundings on the tube, seeking to gauge and garner popular support – fiddlesticks! (The screenwriter must be thinking of the time Nixon dropped in at the Lincoln Memorial around dawn during the Vietnam War, more a product of his deep depression than outreach by a friend of the people. Also, see below.)
These fictions add nothing but they subtract plenty, undermining what could have been high drama but which comes out of the can as low treacle.[As legends in their own mind about making a pitch to Hollywood, TVC suggests further revisionist biopics, tailored to the times. With the 50th anniversary of the assassination of America’s Gandhi, Martin Luther King Jr., looming, we thought an action film based on the shooting in Tennessee might work, perhaps involving a car chase in which Jesse Jackson catches and takes down James Earl Ray.]