Different perspectives, one British man: Winston Churchill

Consuelo Martino
Tuesday 13 March 2018

The last two years have witnessed renewed interest in the film industry in the character and actions of Sir Winston Churchill, Prime Minister of Britain during the Second World War. His role as Queen Elizabeth’s first Prime Minister in 1957 was explored by John Lithgow in the acclaimed Netflix’s success, The Crown, and by Edward Fox and Dakin Matthews in the Broadway play, The Audience (both written by Peter Morgan). In addition, 2017 and 2018 have offered two biopics on Churchill, focussing on different but fundamental moments of his political career during the war.

Churchill (2017), directed by Jonathan Teplitzky and written by the historian Alex von Tunzelmann, highlights the the Prime Minister’s opposition to Operation Overlord, the codename for the Battle of Normandy, which would ultimately lay the foundations for the Allied victory . Brian Cox, together with Miranda Richardson in the role of Churchill’s adored wife Clemmie, presents a portrait of the Prime Minister which moves away from the lion who inspired the nation. As already pointed out in some reviews (see for example, http://www.theguardian.com/film/2017/jun/14/churchill-film-review-brian-cox-miranda-richardson-john-slattery or http://www.telegraph.co.uk/films/0/churchill-review-brian-cox-dazzles-scalpel-sharp-timely-lesson/ ), this image conflicts with more familiar, heroizing representations of the man: he is scared, and in some scenes he seems to surrender under the weight of his responsibilities. His opposition to Overlord is traced back to the failure and the carnage in Gallipoli during the First World War (1915), an operation proposed by Churchill when he was First Lord of the Admiralty, in which many Britons died. His old age and stubbornness contrast with the younger and rigid U.S. Supreme Commander, Eisenhower, portrayed by John Slattery, who fiercely – and rightly – stands against Churchill in defence of the invasion’s operation.

Darkest Hour, directed by Joe Wright (Anna Karenina, Pride and Prejudice, Atonement) written by Anthony McCarten (The Theory of Everything), was released in the UK on January 12th 2018, and portrays a complete different character. Instead of focussing on the end of the conflict, it starts at the very beginning of the UK involvement in it, in 1940, and lead us to Dunkirk and the decision to keep fighting the Germans instead of negotiating peace. Churchill’s decisions to fight is in contrast with the previous government’s stance, which was mainly represented by the Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain and his Foreign Minister, Lord Halifax, who still believed that peace with Hitler was possible and tries to force Winston to consider it throughout the movie.

Winston Churchill is portrayed by an extraordinary and Academy© awarded (for Best Actor in a leading role) Gary Oldman, famous worldwide for his chameleon talent (from Count Dracula to Beethoven, from James Gordon to Sirius Black, through the terrorist who almost killed Harrison Ford in Air Force One and Kung Fu Panda 2) and already acclaimed by most of the reviews,[1] with Kristin Scott Thomas as Clementine. According to Rolling Stone’s reviewer, Peter Travers “John Lithgow won an Emmy for playing Churchill in The Crown; the formidable Brian Cox and Michael Gambon joined the recent run of interpretations of the PM. Still, it’s Oldman, whose performance as Churchill feels definitive, revealing a fearsome, sometimes fearful man racked by self doubts and still able to find the conviction to rally his nation, and countless nations to come, to fight against living under the heel of tyranny.” Oldman’s interpretation is remarkable: he adapted his voice so much that it is barely recognisable and gives us the impression of watching the real Winston talking.

Despite the numerous celebrations in 2015 for the fiftieth anniversary of his death, all this interest in one of the most famous men on earth, who represents the fight against tyranny nowadays, is particularly interesting considering the troubling political situations around the world.  In our leisure time, we crave reassurance that good men exist. Perhaps in the UK in particular (following the divisive Brexit vote) and across Europe (as politicians on the extreme right create new political waves, amid other political and economic tensions) people feel nostalgia for a time when Europeans were united against common enemies and a tyrannical power that threatened our freedom. Oldman’s Churchill, with his famous ending/starting speech (“We shall fight them on the beaches”), his courage, his firmness and his strong message of “Never give in!”, might offer viewers just what they need right now: hope.

[1] http://www.rollingstone.com/movies/reviews/peter-travers-darkest-hours-gary-oldman-gives-us-a-fearsome-churchill-w512243, http://www.washingtonpost.com/goingoutguide/movies/darkest-hour-is-a-soaring-portrayal-of-winston-churchill-on-the-eve-of-dunkirk/2017/12/05/5495179c-d477-11e7-a986-d0a9770d9a3e_story.html?utm_term=.7547482f3121, http://www.bostonglobe.com/arts/movies/2017/12/06/gary-oldman-winston-churchill-roars-realistically-darkest-hour/N7TtHQlSlAMMNAciUNZueL/story.html,

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