England, May of 1940. All
the news is bad. The Germans
“blitzkrieg” has quickly overrun Poland, Belgium, and Holland.
France’s resistance is rapidly crumbling, and now, suddenly, all
the British troops that are fighting in support of the French are being
pushed toward the Sea. The
situation is so dire that the Prime Minister, Neville Chamberlain, is
ousted, and the only man both parties can agree on is Winston Churchill.
But he comes with a lot of baggage.
Churchill (Gary Oldman) is a study in contradictions.
He’s happily married to Clemmie (Kristin Scott Thomas), but
essentially he’s a loner. He
sleeps in his own bed. He
starts barking dictation to his secretary, Ms. Layton (Lily James) while
still in his pajamas. He
starts every morning with Scotch, and continues drinking the rest of the
day, but he enjoys a masterful command of the English language, as if he
were always in possession of all his faculties.
He doesn’t exercise, he smokes cigars constantly, and he’s
overweight. And yet he charges
forward rather than walks, leading with his head, scowling like a bulldog.
Though he suffers from quiet moments of self-doubt, it’s the
bluster of his resolve that inspires the British people.
At a time when everything seems to be falling apart, courage takes
on the air of defiance. And in
this, Churchill correctly read the mood of his constituency.
The King, George VI (Ben Mendelsohn), though at first hesitant
about the choice of Churchill as Prime Minister, even admittedly
intimidated by him, realizes that this is the kind of larger-than-life
persona that Britain needs. When
the army is trapped at Dunkirk, it’s Churchill who calls for the armada
of private yachts, some 800, to sail across the Channel to rescue the
stranded soldiers. And some
300,000 were saved, which enabled England to keep fighting.
Gary Oldman’s performance is remarkable as the crusty, feisty,
larger-than-life Churchill. The
script allows for more than just a caricature:
a little fatigue here, a few moments of indecision there.
An incident of sudden weeping, and a minute of pure, unrestrained
hilarity. Kristin Scott Thomas
plays a sympathetic, supportive Clemmie, who realizes how much her husband
needs her, even if he doesn’t.
Yes, there were those in Churchill’s own Party who were ready to
surrender, feeling that negotiating peace terms with Hitler, through
Mussolini, was better than undergoing any more casualties.
But Winston kept flashing the “V” in public, pointing the
people toward a victory that he knew would be terribly costly.
But then, the price of freedom always is.