Joe Wright’s (Atonement) film is repetitive, didactic, simplistic, and eventually, in one of the most cringe-inducing scenes you’ll ever see, when Winston Churchill finds himself on the Underground getting his back stiffened by “the people”, patently ridiculous. The only thing missing on that subway car is Tiny Tim exclaiming “God Bless Us, everyone” and thereby spurring Churchill to reject appeasement and declare that England would “never surrender.”
It is also unnecessarily arty (a bombing scene is a particular sin, evoking Michael Bay’s Pearl Harbor, a film you really don’t want to ape in any manner) and annoyingly expositive – we learn about Churchill’s background via random members of the House of Commons speaking to each other as if they – or we – are dunces (“and his father died of syphillis!” Harumph!)
Churchill was a lion, But he was also a snake. Now, one could argue that his lies were of necessity. But here, they are simply ignored or recast as tactical blunders. Don’t lie to the people, King George VI counsels. Be straightforward, and they shall corner you in a subway car and show their true mettle.
And, apparently, it was Churchill and Churchill alone who deduced that you could send civilian boats to pick up stranded men at Dunkirk. He is the oracle. Everyone else on his war council is a dimwit, a ninny or a quitter.
Ostensibly, the real reason to see this movie is Gary Oldman‘s performance, and it is not bad. But it is not great. Oldman gets the fussiness, the hidden mirth, and the anger, but his stabs at insecurity come off as petulance, and on balance, the performance feels more like a mimicry. In fact, recently, John Lithgow (The Crown) turned in much more nuanced and effective turn as Churchill. Indeed, the best performance in this film does not belong to Oldman, but to Ben Mendelsohn as King George, who is subtly moved.
Watch The Crown. Hell, watch King Ralph.