It is unlikely that you haven’t yet seen images of Gary Oldman’s extraordinary transformation into Winston Churchill at this stage, so I won’t waste time discussing it here. Suffice to say that it really is astonishing.
This historical biopic deals with Churchill’s early days as Prime Minister of England, just as Germany was gaining a serious foothold on Europe, in the early days of WWII. Reluctantly appointed to the role by King George VI (Mendelsohn) following the resignation of Neville Chamberlain (Pickup) he is not a popular choice to lead the country. Churchill faces an uphill battle to prove himself to King and country, as the war escalates further, and many believe he should be brokering peace instead of fighting back.
Set over a period of around a month, this feels like it manages to cram a lot into its two-hour running time. We are thrust right into the heart of the action, and just like Churchill’s flurried aides, we have to catch up quickly. Without relying too much on exposition, we manage to get a lot of the backstory, but blink and you really will miss it (and there is a bit of a reliance on the fact that the audience is familiar with the events being discussed).
A large portion of the movie deals with the events in Dunkirk, and how Churchill handled the situation, and shows him not as the assured politician he is usually depicted as, but a man torn by self-doubt about the decisions he has made, but who refuses to back down.
While it unlikely that Churchill was ever as assured as he came across (because let’s face it who is) the character here doesn’t seem fully aligned with the historical figure we are all familiar with. While Oldman does a fantastic job portraying him, and is deservedly getting plaudits left, right, and centre, this is more historical fiction than fact. For all the elements they get right, there are others that are stretched well beyond dramatic licence. And there is also a fictitious tube journey, that even if you weren’t aware it was made up feels a bit out of place in the film.
That aside, you do get a good sense of the man and the pressures he, and everyone else, was under in this period. The pressure-cooker effect is only aided by the fact that much of the movie is set in the War Rooms, an underground complex that housed the British government command-centre throughout the Second World War. However, even here they take liberty with the facts, as Churchill was not working from here in these early stages of his tenure.
While Oldman is astonishing, I did find Mendelsohn’s portrayal of the King disjointed, as he choose for some reason to play him with a Jonathon Ross-style lisp, rather than the stammer which we are all aware he suffered from. It’s extremely distracting. Other than that, this is well-cast, with Pickup in particular doing an excellent job in a supporting role.
This is lively and provocative, and surprisingly fast-paced, despite the fact that it is incredibly wordy (Churchill after all was a renowned orator). It unfolds beautifully, and leaves you at a point in the story where you really want to know more.
Not always accurate, it is nonetheless always engaging, and adds yet another element to a historical figure that we thought we knew everything about.
In Cinemas January 12th! See trailer below: