2017 may be remembered as a year that two movies gave us detailed portraits of Winston Churchill.
Darkest Hour is the one you’re probably aware of, starring Gary Oldman in an Oscar-nominated performance. But I stumbled on another one with Brian Cox, titled Churchill. Each has a very tight timeline concerning one small part of the biography of the great man. While what I’m about to say is historical fact, please don’t read this if you’re afraid of encountering a spoiler. For starters, Germany lost the war, but at the time it was far from certain.
Darkest Hour takes us from the time in 1939 when Neville Chamberlain is replaced as the leader of the Conservatives (making Churchill Prime Minister without the necessity of an election, but also without the blessing of a popular mandate), showing the doubts of all around him.
Churchill happens much later in the war, on the eve of the 1944 invasion of Europe and again concerning the conflicts between Churchill and all those around him.
Darkest Hour is a very inspiring tale showing a man full of doubt finding his authentic voice. Churchill, in contrast, shows a man who is again full of doubt, his own finest hours now behind him. Where Darkest Hour is triumphant and uplifting, Churchill is a much darker exploration of the human soul.
I saw Darkest Hour on a big screen, so it’s perhaps not a fair comparison, but Churchill did not seem so impressive. How could it? The budget for Darkest Hour is reported as $30 million while that for Churchill is but $10 million, and alas the latter film has only taken in roughly half of that total so far. Chances are Darkest Hour will help swell that total (that is, people watching Churchill either by accident or design) by creating additional interest in the subject. So far Darkest Hour has earned over $54 million, and that’s sure to swell in the aftermath of the Academy Awards, where the film has six nominations.
The portrayals are quite different, as indeed is the writing and cinematography. And perhaps I can’t make any unbiased comparison between the actors, not when one of them is my favourite actor working today.
I know Cox for a role & portrayal I really disliked, namely Agamemnon in Troy. As I scan his listing on IMDB, I see lots of films I saw, but can’t recall his performances: because they didn’t really make an impression. Nor did this one as Churchill.
And then there’s Oldman, who I treasure for
- His portrayal of Beethoven in Immortal Beloved, a film I watch over and over
- His portrayal of Lee Harvey Oswald in JFK¸ another film I watch over and over
- His portrayal of Dracula
- His portrayals of Commissioner Gordon in two of the Batman movies
- His nasty creation as Zorg in The Fifth Element
Each of those five (a deaf composer, a killer, a vampire with a heavy Hungarian accent, a boring cop with heart, and a psychopathic criminal) are completely unique and unlike the others. Indeed, what makes Churchill a worthy addition to this list is how fluid his portrayal, one that rarely calls attention to the artist. This isn’t a virtuoso turn, one of those films where you know every moment that you’re watching the great Olivier as Hamlet (splendid but ostentatious), or F Murray Abraham as Salieri (did the Oscar go to the wrong actor?). I was distracted a few times by this nagging need to see, hmm, is that really Oldman? And usually I would get lost in the story-telling and not bother with the game of spot-the-star.
Meanwhile, there’s also the question of his consort. I think Miranda Richardson as Clementine Churchill is far more believable to my eye and ear than the still stunningly beautiful Kristin Scott Thomas. Thomas was very very nice to her Winston Churchill, while Richardson was very difficult, and actually stole the picture out from under Cox. Her drama –trying to figure out how to talk to a larger than life personality—was in itself larger than life. But she wasn’t a diva. I found I was watching her rather than him whenever they were on the screen together.
Both films feature a stenographer who endures a trial by blustery fire, eventually finding her place at the great one’s side, and including a story about a loved one in the war. Oldman’s is Lily James, while Cox’s is Ella Purnell. I suppose each of them is somewhat electrifying in contrast, a stunning young woman onscreen beside a bunch of tired old farts. I’d like to think there’s some truth behind their stories but who knows?
Both films feature a handsome fellow as the king, -James Purefoy in the 1944 story alongside Cox, Ben Mendelsohn as the 1939 king—although only Mendelsohn bothers to give him the stutter (and it’s wonderfully well done) that we know from The King’s Speech.
Alongside Oldman & Cox there are some good portrayals. Samuel West deserves to be better known (you may remember him from Howard’s End or Notting Hill), often sharing the frame with Oldman as his supporter Anthony Eden, while the two chief antagonists (Ronald Pickup as Neville Chamberlain and Stephen Dillane as the Viscount Halifax) glare and scheme quietly, Pickup helping things by portraying Chamberlain’s growing illness quite beautifully. As he drifts towards death he stops resisting Churchill.
In the end I think Darkest Hour will be remembered as Oldman’s star vehicle rather than for its historical accuracy. And while Churchill has lots of good moments, I think it’s already well on the way to being forgotten, which is unfortunate. If Churchill can emerge from the shadow of the comparison, it might actually get noticed.