Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Sun Dec 10, 2017 9:29 pm 
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Churchill finding the words to galvanize the nation

In his short one paragraph review for The New Yorker of Joe Wright's new movie Darkest Hour in the front of the magazine, Anthony Lane gently suggests we may not be badly in need of "another Winston Churchill film," while granting this "contribution to the genre" is still welcome due to Gary Oldman's lead performance. It's distinctive, he notes, for playing a Churchill who's "quick on his feet, with a hasty huff and puff in his voice instead of a low, slow growl," suggesting "a man in a hurry to fight" - which he must be since Britain is adrift, with the German war machine "in full cry" as Churchill "to the alarm of many contemporaries, takes charge."

This seemingly impressionistic description is astute, and is based on a more thorough examination of the whole body of cinematic Churchilliana laid out by Lane in a previous issue of the magazine. In that fuller earlier piece (which is well worth reading) Lane avoids an exhaustive review of this new movie, which does cover such familiar ground in such a familiar way, by going over all the previous screen treatments of the man. Indeed you should see this film for Gary Oldman's performance and it is as Lane describes it. Elaborate prosthetics and makeup transform his face and body into Churchill's, and he does the voice so deftly and vigorously that we get caught up in the dialogue and the gestures and forget we're watching a familiar impersonation of a familiar personality - because the focus is on this impossible situation and how he's going to confront it. Chamberlain is ill and fading and resigns. Lord Halifax isn't ready, By default Churchill is chosen as Prime Minister, in May 1940, aged 66, at last in the post he's wanted all his life, at the worst possible moment. He includes Chamberlain and Halifax in the War Cabinet, and all they push for is "peace" - negotiation of a settlement, which would have been simply a voluntary early surrender to Hitler.

Churchill spends much of his justly famous and here much emphasized word-choosing seeking some way to refer to Hitler other than as a "monster." He despises the man.

Wright handles modestly, elegantly and well the background routine, the scenes outside Parliament, at Churchill's house, in his rooms with his wife Clementine (the rigorously stylish Kristin Scott Thomas, honed into perfection by many years of life in France) or with his young typist Elizabeth Layton (Lily James), whom here again in accordance with the legend he first loudly abuses, then adopts as his essential helpmate and supporter. It is the typist who asserts, for our benefit, that Churchill wields words better than anybody else in the United Kingdom.

And this is what the picture is about: words and balls, cojones. Churchill, against a spineless and, as Lane puts it, wrong appeasement camp, is the one who asserts England's courage and its will to survive, to prevail against the greatest odds, and to find the words to galvanize Parliament and the country. Meanwhile his scheme to rescue a vast number of trapped British troops from Dunkirk, called Operation Dynamo, through recruiting, or commandeering, an equally vast number of private business and recreational vessels and sending them virtually into the jaws of the enemy, is being mounted and eventually carried out. This is a story told up front in Christopher Nolan's Dunkirk. Dunkirk, unlike Darkest Hour, presents the nuts and bolts of Operation Dynamo, the event that saved the country's armed forces and made Churchill's brave declarations mean something.

How Churchill found the extra conviction to make his great 4 June 1940 "We shall fight on the beaches" speech to Parliament is explained by Darkest Hour's one single best scene, a plausible but wholly invented one where Churchill, who confesses he's never ridden a bus and only once before went down into the Tube and beat a hasty retreat, goes into the Underground and rides just one stop, but during that ride talks to a small group of citizens whose names he notes on a matchbox and whose views he asks for one by one and mentally records. They are all for fighting the Germans to the last. They reflect the famous pluck of the English people, who would go on to weather brutal German bombardments through the Battle of Britain and, as Churchill promises, will never surrender.

King George VI (Ben Mendelsohn) also plays an admirable role, perhaps also tweaked in this version, coming at night to Churchill, to voice his support after at first holding off, and fearing him.

The movie ends with "We shall fight on the beaches" - the rousing speech, delivered by Gary Oldman as seamlessly as everything else in his fine performance, whose lightness, noted by Lane, gives it an engaging boyancy that keeps us from ever thinking of it as a performance at all. But while Churchill's leadership as a symbol of British pluck was an essential part of England during the War, despite its power to stir the heart and inspire the patriotic, "We shall fight on the beaches" is a gesture, and Operation Dynamo was the essential action of this brief but crucial period in British history. Hence Nolan's telling choice to have the speech not shown as even an echo of Churchilll's voice, but simply read from a newspaper by a soldier on a train when he's been rescued from the beaches at Dunkirk.

Christopher Nolan's Dunkirk is essential cinema, the year's best film. Darkest Hour is a nice little decorative sidelight with another of Gary Oldman's brilliant performances in the long line that began with Sid and Nancy, Prick Up Your Ears, Track 29, Criminal Law, We Think the World of You and Chattahoochee, with many others, True Romance further along, a series of astonishments of such brilliance and bold variety as no other actor in films has bettered; this is another notable one, if of familiar material.

Darkest Hour, 125 mins., debuted at Telluride 1 Sept. 2017, showing at 14 other festivals including Toronto, Mill Valley and Hamptons, with limited US release 22 Nov., US wide release 22 Dec. Watched at a commercial screening at Landmark Albany Twin Theater, Albany California, 9 Dec. 2017.


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