Gary Oldman is the latest in a long line of actors to play the wartime leader in this latest film centring on Churchill. Just when we thought there couldn’t be anything more to say, Joe Wright gives us something new. He opts to keep the war as an external threat, which we only catch fleeting glimpses of in the authentic black and white footage in the opening scenes. Instead, he focuses on the conflict between Churchill and his war cabinet (composed mostly of doubters like Halifax and Chamberlain), showing us Winston with the world on his shoulders, thought incompetent by his peers, and under constant threat of being ousted.
Oldman, versatile but barely recognisable under heavy prosthetics, makes us empathise with the character through a complex and multi-faceted portrayal; Churchill is taken away from the history books, humanised and familiarised. He ranges from outbursts of defiance towards those who want him to capitulate (“You cannot reason with a tiger when your head is in its mouth!”), to a conflicted heavy-drinker sitting alone in his room, contemplating his every decision and very fitness for office.
Wright is deftly able to depict pressure and tension at every turn, particularly visible through the expressive use of close-up shots during speech scenes, and symbolic colour tones. For example, at one point, a red light, initially out of focus in the foreground, illuminates Churchill at a desk, a reminder of danger. Even the mise-en-scène is restrictive; we watch the characters scurry around the narrow corridors of the War Office, and see the PM frequently confined by darkness in the lift and the toilet. Surrounded by doubters, Winston’s wife Clementine (Kristin Scott-Thomas), and his secretary (Lily James) are the ones who instil confidence in him when he flounders, but occasionally feel underutilised by the sheer amount of screen time dedicated to the protagonist.
It’s not all darkness. There are some light-hearted moments when the secretary points out to Churchill that his backward V sign means “Up your bum”, and a message, “Tell the Lord Privy Seal that I am sealed in the privy!” But the most memorable scene and turning point has to be when he takes the tube to talk to the people, who urge him not to negotiate with Germany. Bolstered by their support, he finally gains the support of the doubters in his speech to Parliament.
It’s in the final shot that Oldman transforms the character into the figure we know. As a silhouette, he walks towards us and out of the door, to thunderous applause, and when I saw this film I wanted to join in the clapping. No surprises with the awards – the film is a winner, thanks mostly to Oldman’s convincing turn alone.