Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Thu Jun 01, 2017 6:20 am 
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Brits at war, Churchill above all

At last count, we know of four British WWII movies that are going to be released this year. These are, in order of release, Lone Scherfig's Their Finest, Jonathan Teplitzky’s Churchill , Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk and Joe Wright’s Darkest Hour. Their Finest starts things up quietly, with an understatement natural to the Brits (even though Scherfig is Swedish). It's a charming and subtle little romantic comedy of workers in wartime in a non-military capacity: making inspirational movies in England at the height of the war. Focused on a challenged young couple of film writers who revel in each other's wry company, it's enlivened by the dry sparkle of Bill Nighy as a deliciously preening former star past his prime, seedily stylish but only important, if at all, because the able-bodied are away.

With Churchill we move from the everyday to the exceptional. It focuses on the eponymous English leader seen both in public and intimately at the time when he was most challenged.* It shows him under dire pressure in the five days leading up to the D-Day invasion called Operation Overlord - revealing how he struggled, yet maintained his own and the nation's dignity knowing full well that with America in the War, and playing the numerically key role in the invasion, the British role and Churchill's voice in strategic decisions would diminish dramatically. So while in Their Finest we have a small personal drama of work and personal relations in wartime, Churchill happens at the top. It's the story of a great man at the helm, but diminishing, and the moment before the tide turned in the War.

Brian Cox plays Churchill. It is a monumental, Shakespearean performance, fully displaying Cox's brilliance and technical range as an actor. His destructive opposition to Operation Overlord at the last minute is Lear-like, but it's a Lear nipped in the bud, since high command won't listen to him. The screenplay is by Alex von Tunzelmann, a forty-year-old Oxford-educated English woman historian and writer with blue hair. Her recent book on Haiti was said by the NYTimes reviewer to have been weakened "by her own exaggerations and occasionally smug style." Her writing here is schematic and simplistic, but rhetorically strong. Did Churchill really have time to go through one of his "black dog" depressions during this brief, intense period of the war, and come out of it? The point is made that his suggestions were not heeded, and he is scoffed at as a hindrance. The over-arching point is that he is being made to recognize he's not as important anymore, except as an eloquent speech-writer whose oratory still inspires the British public as it has done during the most dire days of German bombardment.

Basically this is a one man show with a few key supporting actors. John Slattery of "Mad Men" has little charisma as General Eisenhower. Luckily his appearances are only brief. Miranda Richardson, on the other hand, always impresses as Winnie's wife Clementine. The two actors have splendid scenes together and the screenplay nicely outlines their relationship with a few key strokes. Julian Wadman is quietly impressive as Field Marshall Montgomery. A young actress, Ella Purnell, has a satisfying little set piece as a secretary who has her moment too, to make Churchill remember his need for optimism and supportiveness. The score by Scot Lorne Balfe rings out impressively, but it's obtrusive sometimes. The mise-en-scène and cinematography feel simple and spacious. One need not just watch this for Brian Cox, though he's enough. But this isn't the best introduction to Churchill for neophytes. This brief a moment could never be adequate for such an immense figure in British, not to say world, history. History buffs are bound to walk out feeling we've seen nothing but tweaking.

Christopher Nolan's Dunkirk, opening in USA 21 July, is a grand war movie about a military operation from the ground up: the evacuation of Allied troops from France in May 1940 when the Germans had hemmed them in. Dunkik, with Nolan at the helm, promises to be technically the most accomplished and with luck also the most stirring of the four films, in the vein of Saving Private Ryan and the HBO series Band of Brothers. It will show the action on multiple levels and fronts, with something like the powerful unfolding of the 1962 D-Day film from Cornelius Ryan's book, The Longest Day. The trailer shows how it seeks to thrill us and tug at our heartstrings. Kenneth Brannagh, who started films as a king in battle, is a leader here, along with Mark Rylance, but there are many opportunities for younger actors, Cillian Murphy, Tom Hardy, and younger ones still such as Harry Styles, Jack Lowden, Elliott Tittensor, Kevin Guthrie, Barry Keoghan, Adam Long, and Brian Vernel, among others. This is the one everybody can appreciate. Their Finest is for the Brits. For the Churchill films it would help to know a bit of history, though buffs may be dissatisfied with the slant.

Joe Wright's Darkest Hour, to be released in the fall of 2017 (22 November), is again focused on Churchill, but at the start of the War, when he becomes Prime Minister and must establish authority. This time Gary Oldman plays the role of Churchill, supported by Ben Mendelsohn and with John Hurt in his last performance. Photographs suggest Oldman has done a remarkable physical job of self-transformation. We shall see how well Cox and Oldman duke it out to prove who best embodies the cigar-twirling gentleman, and how well the screenwriters serve them in doing so.

*For an idea about Churchill's situation at, and after, the D-Day invasion, see an excerpt from Finest Years: Churchill As Warlord by Max Hastings, "How Churchill was bullied into D-Day - his most triumphant achievement - by the Americans."

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