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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Dunkirk (2017)


Waiting to evacuate, a British soldier nervously scans the sky for Nazi planes in Dunkirk.

(2017) War (Warner Brothers) Fionn Whitehead, Barry Keoghan, Mark Rylance, Cillian Murphy, Kenneth Branagh, Tom Hardy, Tom Glynn-Carney, James D’Arcy, Harry Styles, Will Attenborough, Aneurin Barnard, Jack Lowden, Billy Howle, Matthew Marsh, Richard Sanderson, Bobby Lockwood, Mikey Collins, Dean Ridge, Adam Long, Bradley Hall, Miranda Nolan. Directed by Christopher Nolan

 

Dunkirk remains one of the seminal moments in the Second World War. Churchill’s stirring speech “We shall never surrender!” was written about the event. For those whose history is rusty, when the Nazis overran France some 400,000 soldiers were stranded on the beaches of Dunkirk. With Hitler’s troops drawing the noose tight, the English were staring at the obliteration of most of their army and essentially the complete loss of Western Europe.

Nolan aims to capture the desperation and chaos of those few days using three time-dilated stories each centered around a single element; a week following soldiers waiting to die or be rescued on the jetty and on the beach, a day aboard one of the civilian rescue vessels desperately trying to ferry as many soldiers back to safety as possible, this one captained by the noble Mr. Dawson (Rylance) and an hour in the air with a pair of daring RAF pilots (Hardy, Lowden) trying to take out the Luftwaffe planes trying to bomb and strafe the beaches and the British naval vessels trying to evacuate the troops.

Like Memento, Nolan uses time differently than most linear storytelling techniques in order to….well, I’m not quite sure. It is confusing at times to follow the goings on when you are jumping ahead and back in time depending on whether you’re in a boat, plane or beach. It also leads to a curious difficulty in telling the different characters apart for the most part; the soldiers and sailors are all fresh faced and largely unknown with a few exceptions and those exceptions tend to stand out, particularly Rylance and to a lesser extent, Branagh as a stolid Naval commander and Murphy as a shell-shocked soldier pulled out of the ocean by Rylance.

The technical achievement here is impressive, maybe even mind-blowing. I’m not just talking about the special effects but on all the elements of the film, from the lighting (often utilizing a washed out pastel color palate that gives a visual accounting of the hopelessness of the waiting soldiers) to the way the shots are lined up to the sound design to the way there’s virtually no let-up in the tension from the opening shot to the closing credits.

Some of the few remaining Dunkirk survivors who viewed the film at its London premiere observed that the sound wasn’t quite as loud during the real bombing and strafing which apparently Nolan found amusing and when you think about it, has a ring of the “Turn down that music ya whippersnappers” to it. Not that I’m an expert but this may be the most authentic war movie since the D-day scene in Saving Private Ryan raised the bar on war movies in general.

There was talk this was going to be an Oscar contender way back in July when this was released and to that end Warner Brothers is planning a re-release to remind Academy voters not to forget about this film among all the year-end prestige releases. And, for those wondering, that is also why it hasn’t been released to home video just yet. If you haven’t seen it in a theater, by all means make a point to do so when the re-release occurs. You won’t be sorry.

REASONS TO GO: This may be the most realistic depiction of war since Saving Private Ryan. The tension generated here is absolutely relentless. Rylance has become one of the most reliable actors working today.
REASONS TO STAY: Those sensitive to loud noises may have issues with this.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some very intense war violence as well as occasional profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is the first movie directed by Nolan to portray real events.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 11/26/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 92% positive reviews. Metacritic: 94/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Longest Day
FINAL RATING: 8.5/10
NEXT:
Diana: Our Mother, Her Life and Her Legacy

Letters from Baghdad


Gertrude Bell, the iconic woman you’ve never heard of – but should have.

(2016) Documentary (Vitagraph) Tilda Swinton (voice), Eric Loscheider, Pip Torrens (voice), Michelle Eugene, Paul McGann (limited), Rachael Stirling, Helen Ryan, Christopher Villiers, Rose Leslie (voice), Adam Astill, Ahmed Hashimi, Simon Chandler, Anthony Edridge, Andrew Havill, Zaydum Khalad, Mark Meadows, Elizabeth Rider, Hayat Kamille, Michael Higgs, Joanna David, Lucy Robinson. Directed by Sabine Krayenbühl and Zeva Oelbaum

 

There are people who have made enormous contributions to history that have gone largely unnoticed. Not because their contributions have been any less important but simply because of their gender. Women who have been instrumental to shaping our modern world are often lost in the mists of time simply because they weren’t taken seriously by their contemporaries, particularly those uncomfortable with the thought that a woman could make more of a difference than a man.

Gertrude Bell isn’t a household name but she should be one no less than her contemporary colleague T.E. Laurence, better known as Laurence of Arabia. Bell helped shape the modern Arabic nation-state, particularly Iraq but she did labor with Laurence in creating the map of the Middle East that we see today, largely helping various countries achieve their independence from colonial powers following the Great War.

She is largely responsible for the foundation of the state of Iraq which might not make her popular nowadays with a certain segment of our society, but she is actually well-regarded by the Iraqi people. She had a special affinity for them as well as the Arabs, speaking both fluent Persian and Arabic. She regarded them as equals, which was not the general case with the British diplomats and bureaucrats they had contact with.

She was an avid letter writer and also a published author; although these days she’s not as well known as her contemporary Laurence who was an EXCELLENT writer, she was an accomplished writer in her own right and even today her words are evocative, bringing the desert and those who live here to life. Swinton reads the writing with a natural flair, making the penned words sound naturally spoken. She does a wonderful job of giving the not so well known historical figure depth and humanity. Bell was a formidable woman in her time (and would be considered so today) although she was also a victim of some of the less admirable qualities of the time; she speaks of “the better classes” when referring to those few she admitted to her inner circle, by which she meant the educated and mannered. I suspect if she lived in contemporary times her attitude would be a bit more progressive.

The filmmakers utilize archival footage, a good deal of which hasn’t been seen in almost a hundred years and some likely never exhibited publicly. The footage is quite amazing, evoking an era long past but lives on in romantic memory. There are also plenty of still photos as well, many of which were from Bell’s own collection. One of my favorite sequences in the film was a collage of photos showing Bell’s maturing from a young girl into a young woman. It’s only a few seconds of screen time but it is memorable; keep an eye out for it.

There are also actors reading from various missives, reports and personal letters about Bell; strangely enough they are attired in period costumes and appear onscreen (whereas Swinton doesn’t). The effect is less than scintillating and I think the film would have been better off having the actors read the lines in voice over and utilizing more of the footage and still photos.

This is a marvelous documentary that redresses a wrong in relegating Bell to the forgotten pages of history. Regardless of what you might think of her – and to be fair there are modern scholars who thought her a raging colonialist although I have to disagree with that – she was a mover and a shaker in a time when women were expected to be quiet and subservient. Her story is an incredible one and shows someone of great character, fortitude and courage who should be an inspiration to young women everywhere. Thanks to this documentary, now she can be.

REASONS TO GO: The still photos and archival film footage are marvelous. Swinton breathes life into Bell. The photo collage that captured Bell aging from young girl to young woman was nicely done.
REASONS TO STAY: The dramatic recreations and actors playing talking head interviewees work less well.
FAMILY VALUES: While some of the themes are a bit adult, generally speaking this is suitable for the entire family.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: In her lifetime, Bell wrote more than 1,600 letters which the filmmakers had exclusive access to.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 6/4/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 80% positive reviews. Metacritic: 63/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Queen of the Desert
FINAL RATING: 8/10
NEXT: Paris Can Wait