Churchill canonisation will appeal to devout
Darkest Hour (PG, 125mins) ★★★
A Woman's Life (No Cert, IFI, 119mins) ★★★
No wonder historians, biographers and film-makers love Churchill so much, for he was a mass of contradictions and many things at once - visionary, man of history, mono-maniac, big baby, petulant pain in the arse. By insisting that Britain stand up to Hitler, he saved his nation from a demeaning Vichy-esque truce or worse, and forced America to join the fight, which probably saved Europe from a new dark age. He richly deserves his giant reputation, but there are only so many ways of telling his story and virtually every one has been tried at this stage.
In the last two years alone we've had the guilt-wracked, sidelined Winston on the eve of D-Day in the film Churchill, and the elderly, scheming Downing Street veteran in Netflix's The Crown. Darkest Hour focuses on his moment of triumph, when he took over as Prime Minister, led the Dunkirk evacuation and made a series of speeches that galvanised the British public for the long battle that lay ahead. But in Joe Wright's drama we discover he did so in the face of determined opposition from appeasers within his own party.
In May 1940, as German forces were massing along the borders of the low countries and France, Clement Attlee's Labour opposition tabled a motion of no confidence in Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain, whose appeasement of Hitler had gone so disastrously wrong. Chamberlain (played here by Ronald Pickup) had to go, but wanted his close ally Lord Halifax (Stephen Dillane) to succeed him. Halifax, though, may not have fancied taking over as Prime Minister as the Germans edged ever closer to the Channel, and so a compromise candidate was chosen who appealed to practically no one.
Churchill (Gary Oldman) was still best remembered for masterminding the disastrous Gallipoli landings during World War One and was seen by many as a belligerent and out-of-touch relic. But Churchill had been among the first to understand what Hitler was and would be the perfect man to lead a defiant resistance. Darkest Hour is not so much a war film as a rather stagy political drama, with lots of acting and Whitehall scheming and intemperate confrontations. Because even after Churchill took over, Halifax and Chamberlain hatched a back-door scheme to use Mussolini to broker a peace deal with the Nazis. They still believed Hitler was a man you could do business with, but Winston knows otherwise and "mobilises the English language" to win the argument.
His "fight on the beaches" speech forms the film's climax, and his eloquence rings loud and clear down the years in an age where some world leaders struggle to compose a coherent sentence. Concealed beneath what ought to be Oscar-winning make-up, Gary Oldman portrays the great man with diligent intelligence. For all his technique, however, there's a curious superficiality and deadness to his performance, especially if you compare it to John Lithgow's rickety villainous Churchill in The Crown.
But Oldman's performance is not the real problem in a film that is watchable and entertaining, but rather stilted dramatically, unimaginative in its storytelling and a little too in thrall with its waddling hero.
- - - -
Guy de Maupassant is best known for his masterful short stories but also wrote novels, and Stephane Brize's A Woman's Life is based on one of them.
It's set in rural Normandy in the early 19th century and stars Judith Chelma as Jeanne, a well-born young woman who thinks an exciting future is beginning when she marries a local nobleman, Simon-Jacques Le Perthuis des Vauds (Jean-Pierre Darroussin). But he turns out be stingy, unpleasant and a hopeless philanderer, and over the ensuing decades, Jeanne's life will be blighted by his indiscretions and the financial recklessness of their son.
Brize's film is poetic, elegant and drifts dreamily through its melancholy story with wonderful sleight of hand, helped by the brilliant acting of Judith Chelma, who quivers with suppressed emotions as she stoically endures her lot.