Darkest Hour


When you’re Winston Churchill, you can ride on the tube smoking your tube of tobacco.

(2017) True Life Drama (Focus) Gary Oldman, Kristin Scott Thomas, Ben Mendelsohn, Lily James, Ronald Pickup, Stephen Dillane, Nicholas Jones, Samuel West, David Schofield, Richard Lumsden, Malcolm Storry, Hilton McRae, Benjamin Whitrow, Joe Armstrong, Adrian Rawlings, David Strathairn (voice), David Bamber, Paul Leonard, Mary Antony, Bethany Muir. Directed by Joe Wright

 

Perhaps more than any figure of his time Winston Churchill remains in the eyes of Britain as an enduring hero, a steadfast bulldog who led England when she alone faced down the might of Hitler’s war machine in the year before the United States joined the fight.

In 1940, the war is going disastrously for Great Britain. Neville Chamberlain (Pickup), the Prime Minister who infamously declared “Peace in Our Time” after negotiations with Adolph Hitler essentially handed Poland to the Nazis, is about to be forced out of his position. Who will replace him? Lord Halifax (Dillane) suggests Winston Churchill (Oldman), a former First Lord of the Admiralty who’s Gallipoli Campaign during the First World War had been so mishandled that he left the position in disgrace.

However, he was politically astute and was one of the few candidates that the opposition would accept. Halifax suspected the notoriously blunt Churchill would fumble this position as well at which time Dillane and his faction that urged surrender to the Nazis could come in and negotiate a peace tht Britain could live with. As mind-blowing as that sounds, it actually happened.

Churchill has other ideas. Although aging and infirm as the result of lifelong smoking and drinking, he was still a firebrand who was one of the great orators of the 20th century although that was a part of his skill set that Chamberlain and Halifax didn’t reckon on. Churchill was prescient enough to realize that the Americans would eventually enter the war although that didn’t look likely at the time as conversations with President Roosevelt (Strathairn) brought Churchill to the brink of despair. With his army trapped at Dunkirk, his navy neutralized by the U-Boats of the Nazis and his RAF completely outclassed by the Luftwaffe, Churchill knew he was days away from having most of his fighting force annihilated, leaving the road open for Hitler to invade.

He was also sensible enough to know that there could be no negotiations for peace. “When will you learn,” he roars at Halifax and his allies, “That you can’t negotiate with a tiger when your head is in its mouth!” His relationship with King George VI (Mendelsohn), who detested him, was dysfunctional and only the steadfast support of his wife Clemmie (Thomas) – who also isn’t afraid to scold him from time to time – and his personal secretary Elizabeth Layton (James) was all he had to see him through. Nonetheless, his true strength came from someone unexpected – the British people themselves. This would lead to one of the defining moments in the War – and in British history as a whole.

This is very much Churchill’s story and as such it’s very much Oldman’s show and to his credit he responds with maybe the defining performance of an already lustrous career. He has been the odds on favorite to win the Best Actor Oscar since the first reviews came out in September following the movie’s debut at Toronto, and although there have been some great performances since the same sentiment prevails on the eve of the Oscar telecast this weekend. Whereas most of the previous performances of Churchill have either run perilously close to parody or focused on an aspect of the man, this is really the first onscreen performance that has captured Churchill as a complete, complex man. Blustery almost to the point of bullying (his first encounter with Layton reduces her to tears) but also possessed of an almost romantic soul, Oldman’s Churchill possesses an enormous ego but also a unique appreciation for the people of Britain that no other Prime Minister has possessed before or since. If anyone other than Oldman’s name is called on Sunday I should be very surprised.

Thomas does a game job being the yin to Churchill’s yang but she’s a lone tree against a hurricane. Nobody can stand against a performance like this and Thomas wisely doesn’t try. James also provides moments of genuine calm and compassion.

Maybe the most moving scene is one that didn’t actually happen in real life – Churchill taking a Tube from Downing Street to speak at Parliament rather than riding in his limousine. He takes the time to talk to the working people riding along with him and to his surprise they not only support him but urge him to fight for their survival, giving him all the motivation he needs. However, it should be said that while there’s no record of Churchill ever riding the subway, he was known to leave Downing Street to talk to the British people around London to find out what they were thinking and feeling. It is during this scene however that we realize that even though the movie is about Winston Churchill, it is also about the British people maybe even more so.

The movie is a bit long and takes a long time to get to the climactic speech that is the emotional payoff for the film but Oldman’s performance is just so engrossing that one doesn’t mind so much that we get to watch more of it. I will say that there are some CGI bombers and war scenes that aren’t very convincing; it might have been better to use newsreel footage rather than construct a nice but ineffective shot of a British soldier looking up to the sky through a hole in the roof of a house in Dunkirk and the camera rising to follow his gaze to Nazi bombers but because of the mediocre CGI the scene loses all of its power.

The movie is a strong one but one wonders how it would have been without Oldman in the cast; not quite so compelling I believe. Still, performances like this should be savored and encouraged. Oldman has given us a performance that comes in a very long while; you would be remiss if you are a film buff and miss this. Chances are you’ve already seen it but for those who haven’t, what on Earth are you waiting for?

REASONS TO GO: Oldman is the odds-on favorite to win the Oscar for Best Actor for good reason. This is a movie that makes as effective a use of pauses as any I’ve ever seen. The complex relationship between King and Prime Minister is highlighted.
REASONS TO STAY: The film is way too long. The CGI is poor and actually unnecessary.
FAMILY VALUES: Some of the thematic material is on the adult side.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: John Hurt was originally cast to portray Neville Chamberlain but had become ill in the final stages of the cancer that claimed his life – which ironically Chamberlain was also stricken with during the period portrayed here. Hurt never made any readings or filmed any scenes but the movie is still dedicated to him.
BEYOND THE THEATER: Amazon, Fandango Now, Google Play, iTunes, Movies Anywhere, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 2/28/18: Rotten Tomatoes: 86% positive reviews. Metacritic: 75/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Churchill
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT:
Oh Lucy!

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Hyde Park on Hudson


Few actors can out-jaunty Bill Murray.

Few actors can out-jaunty Bill Murray.

(2012) Historical Drama (Focus) Bill Murray, Laura Linney, Olivia Colman, Samuel West, Elizabeth Marvel, Elizabeth Wilson, Eleanor Bron, Olivia Williams, Martin McDougall, Andrew Havill, Nancy Baldwin, Samantha Dakin, Jonathan Brewer, Kumiko Konishi. Directed by Roger Michell

Earlier this year, Steven Spielberg’s long-gestating project, Lincoln finally came to fruition. It was a superb film that really humanized the iconic President and made him, if anything, even more worthy of admiration. Franklin Delano Roosevelt is another President who is much loved (well in Liberal circles anyway) and a similar treatment of him would surely have been welcome.

It is 1939 and the world is on the brink of war. King George VI (West), the recently crowned and woefully unprepared monarch of England (after the abdication of his brother) is coming to the United States – the first reigning King of England to ever do so – not just to make political hay in his own country but also for a desperately important task; to gauge whether the Americans would assist them when war inevitably broke out (as it would do a scant three months after their visit).

Springwood, the President’s estate in Hyde Park, New York in the Hudson Valley is in an uproar. To be hosting the King and Queen (Colman) of England is important enough but the whole affair has turned into a battle of wills between the President’s mother (Wilson) and wife Eleanor (Williams). Mommy, ever mindful of FDR’s political image, wants nothing done to tarnish his image as a world leader while Eleanor seems hell-bent on tweaking the monarchs somewhat.

Franklin (Murray) needs some respite from the bickering and stress. After a number of relatives are called without success, a distant cousin named Daisy (Linney) at last answers the call and is driven to Springwood to help “take the President’s mind off of things.” It’s awkward at first; while related, they barely know each other and Daisy isn’t really sure what she’s doing there. Franklin pulls out his stamps. They seem to hit it off however once that initial discomfort wears off. Soon they are going for rides in the countryside in a specially fitted car that the President, stricken by polio and nearly unable to use his legs, can drive only with his hands. Soon those drives are leading to stops and at those stops there is some intimacy.

Meanwhile the war continues with FDR’s secretary Missy LaHand (Marvel) trying to mediate but there are absolutes going on – Eleanor wants the Royals to attend a picnic in which hot dogs are served which is mortifying enough but that she wants to serve cocktails ­– that’s more than the teetotaling mother of the President can bear. Daisy tries to hover near the edges so that none can figure out the nature of the relationship she’s building with Franklin, but even she doesn’t quite understand what’s really going on.

The relationship between Daisy and FDR would remain a secret until shortly after she died just shy of her 100th birthday. Some letters and diaries were found in which she discussed her intimacies with the former President. I’m not sure how much the writers relied on those writings for the story – whether they were faithful to Daisy’s words or if they used them as a rough outline – but it could have been a nice jumping off point.

My problem with it is that Daisy really isn’t all that interesting a character. She’s a middle aged woman (she was 48 when these events took place) who hasn’t had a lot of experience with men and develops almost a high school crush on FDR. She is in her own way as lonely as the man at the top, her life mainly revolving around her aunt (Bron) whom she acts as a caretaker to.

She seems like a nice enough albeit naive woman but I’m not sure that she’s got the personality to base an entire movie around – and that isn’t a knock against Linney. She fares much better than Murray however, who doesn’t resemble FDR in the slightest and whose attempt to mimic the distinctive style of speech and accent of the President is simply ghastly. A very big issue – and this isn’t Murray’s fault in the slightest – is that we never get much of a three dimensional portrait of FDR. We see him as a letch and as somewhat disingenuous but we never get a hint of the political savvy or of his inner strength in pulling the country out of a depression and overcoming polio. Instead he sems mostly to hold to the parody image of Bill Clinton as an insatiable womanizer.

The surrounding cast is pretty good, particularly West and Colman as the somewhat befuddled royals who are on the one hand afraid and self-conscious but on the other hand not really sure what to do. We met West’s Bertie in The King’s Speech played with a little more charisma by Colin Firth but West carries the weak chin and frustration of a lifelong stutterer very well. Colman gets the haughty attitude of a Royal who is quite unsure if she’s being made sport of.

Williams also captures the forthright shoot-from-the-hip attitude I always imagined Eleanor Roosevelt to have, although like Murray her accent is distracting. The movie has a bit of a sense of whimsy in the humor (the looks on the faces of the Royals as King George VI is served a hot dog is priceless) but where it lacks is in heart. I was left unmoved for the most part and would have wished that the legacy of President Roosevelt didn’t get trashed by making him out to be the sort of man who thought first with his genitals. I believe him to be a much more complex character than that and that’s precisely what we didn’t get and despite delivering a beautifully shot, meticulously detailed film, we don’t get a movie that is anything more than an ABC Family movie for the middle aged.

REASONS TO GO: Captures some of the cult of personality around FDR and of the era he lived in. Reduces a crucial point in history into a soap opera.

REASONS TO STAY: We really don’t get a sense of FDR the man other than as a complete jerkwad and Murray seems content to caricature him rather than explore him.

FAMILY VALUES:  There is a bit of sexuality and some fairly adult situations.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Daisy’s real name was Margaret Suckley and she was one of four women at the Little White House in Warm Springs, Georgia when Roosevelt passed away.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 12/26/12: Rotten Tomatoes: 38% positive reviews. Metacritic: 56/100. The reviews are trending towards the negative.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Broken Flowers

UPSTATE NEW YORK LOVERS: I’m not 100% sure if they filmed the exteriors in the Hudson Valley near where these events actually took place but it does look as if they did and those exteriors are just breathtaking.

FINAL RATING: 6/10

NEXT: Jack Reacher

The King’s Speech


The King's Speech

It's not always great to be the king.

(2010) Historical Drama (Weinstein) Colin Firth, Geoffrey Rush, Helena Bonham Carter, Guy Pearce, Michael Gambon, Jennifer Ehle, Derek Jacobi, Claire Bloom, Timothy Spall, Eve West, Roger Parrott, Anthony Andrews, Patrick Ryecart. Directed by Tom Hooper

Uneasy lies the head where rests the crown. So said Shakespeare, and so it is in reality. Even those close to the crown may rest uneasy.

It is 1925 at Wembley Stadium and the British Empire is at its zenith. Fully one quarter of the world’s population lives within its borders and King George V (Gambon) rules it serenely. Radio has become a fact of life, and even the monarchy must learn to adjust to it. At the closing ceremonies of the Empire Exhibition, Prince Albert (Firth), second in line to the throne, must give a speech that will be broadcast on the BBC. Unfortunately, Albert is a terrible stammerer and any sort of public speaking is the equivalent for him of undergoing the tender mercies of The Rack. Even though his sensible and supportive wife Elizabeth (Carter) is there for moral support, the speech goes horribly.

Years go by and Elizabeth and Albert try to get some sort of speech therapy, anything to cure his condition. The cures range from marbles in the mouth, Demosthenes-style to excessive smoking which is said to relax the muscles in the throat.

Nothing works. Albert’s father realizes that his younger son is a good man who would make a better king than his older brother David (Pearce) who is “carrying on” with a twice-divorced married American woman named Wallis Simpson (West). He seems a decent enough sort but he has little backbone and with Hitler making all sorts of noise in Europe, a strong King is needed.

But England is going to get something different. King George passes away, leaving David in charge, under the name of Edward VIII. However, he is unwilling to give up on Mrs. Simpson, who now has the King of England pouring her drinks for her.

Realizing that there was a more than decent chance that he may have to give more public speeches than at first was thought, Elizabeth finds an Australian named Lionel Logue (Rush), a failed actor who comes highly recommended. His methods are indeed unorthodox, as they involve getting to know his clients personally. That involves calling the Prince by his nickname Bertie, which is mortifying at first.

Soon, the prince learns little by little to trust his new elocutionist. Grudgingly, slowly, he begins to open up to the Aussie. As he does, his stammer begins to disappear, although not completely. There is some hope that he may yet be able to fulfill his public functions more gracefully.

The Edward and Mrs. Simpson scandal at last comes to a head and Edward abdicates, leaving the throne of England for the now thrice-divorced American. Now Albert is king, George VI and the monarch of the United Kingdom, a country on the brink of war, a war in which he must lead with a voice both authoritative and regal. It will be up to Lionel to provide him with that voice.

First, this is one of the best movies of the year, so let’s get that right out of the way. What makes it so good starts off with the casting. Every role has the right person in it, from Spall as the Bulldog-like Churchill to Bloom as the dowager Queen Mary. Everyone assumes their role perfectly, not performing so much as they are inhabiting.

Before I get to the top-billed players, I wanted to mention a few other performances. Derek Jacobi does a fine job (as always) as the Archbishop of Canterbury, playing him as both manipulative and somewhat stymied by the stammering King whom he underestimates. Jennifer Ehle, as Logue’s long-suffering wife, has some excellent scenes with Helena Bonham Carter; it turns out that she is a fine comic actress as well as a dramatic one, even if her fansite chided me for not listing her in the fall preview. I stand corrected, my friends.

Helena Bonham Carter has been getting some notice for her portrayal of Bellatrix LeStrange in the Harry Potter movies, a deliciously evil role that Carter has sunk her teeth into; however, here she plays a much less flamboyant role and carries it off very nicely. It’s not acting that gets noticed as much as it perhaps should be, but it adds a certain flavor to the overall dish. Guy Pearce is one of those actors who seems incapable of a bad performance, and when he’s in a good movie given a well-defined role, he gives performances that are as good as anyone, and better than most. He may well join Rush in a Best Supporting Actor nomination in February.

The relationship between Bertie and Lionel is the heart of the movie and Hooper did well to cast two of the best actors working in them in Firth and Rush. Rather than vying for their screen time, they complement each other nicely and this works best for the movie overall.

Each performance is different and special. Firth imbues the King with courage and dignity, something that we common folk don’t usually regard the royal class as having. He becomes instantly relatable, overcoming his own personal difficulty and in doing so, becoming greater than the sum of his parts. Firth’s performance captures the frustration the man felt over his impediment, the fear he felt at taking on an enormous responsibility, one that was never intended for him and the genuine caring he felt for his subjects and his family. His interaction with his daughters Elizabeth and Margaret, the former being the present Queen of England, is part of the movie’s basic charm.

This is a movie in which class distinctions become blurred as the King learns to trust his subject and the commoner learns that the King is just a man. They find common ground and become friends, a friendship which apparently lasted for the rest of their lives. Some have criticized it for being too much of a feel-good movie, but what’s wrong with feeling good, especially in these times?  

At the end of the day, we all must find our voice in one fashion or another and watching King George VI find his is fascinating viewing. The marvelous performances of Firth, Rush, Pearce and Carter are certain to be accorded Oscar consideration, as Hooper, writer David Seidler and the motion picture itself will be as well. For my personal awards show, The King’s Speech is hands down this year’s Best Picture and Firth it’s Best Actor. They can thank the Academy of Me later.

REASONS TO GO: One of the best movies of the year. Colin Firth gives another Oscar-worthy performance while nearly his entire supporting cast does the same.

REASONS TO STAY: Those who aren’t big on British period dramas should probably give this a wide berth.

FAMILY VALUES: The King utters a few naughty words. There is also a good deal of smoking which apparently relaxes the diaphragm.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The studio appealed its “R” rating which was given it due to the repeated use of the f bomb which the studio contended was used for speech therapy purposes; unfortunately, the MPAA turned down the appeal.

HOME OR THEATER: Although this is essentially set in enclosed places for the most part, I do recommend seeing this as one of the best movies of the year, although it will probably work just as well at home.

FINAL RATING: 10/10

TOMORROW: Astro Boy