I am not certain where Gary Oldman culled inspiration to play Winston Churchill in this new cinematic equivalent of a comic book history lesson. With a blubbery voice and a penchant for cutesy physical movements, Oldman does a smashing impersonation of Benny Hill’s Mr. Scuttle, but the resemblance to Britain’s wartime leader isn’t quite there. An excess of make-up and generous body padding only succeeds in turning Oldman into living Madame Tussaud wax statue.
But Oldman’s silly posturing is actually the least of the problems in this dull recounting of the too-familiar story when Churchill assumed control of Britain’s wartime government from appeaser-in-chief Neville Chamberlain and rallied a dispirited nation when it appeared Nazi Germany could not be stopped in its conquest of Europe. Too much of the film is wasted on feckless aristocrats in Parliament and Churchill’s cabinet complaining about their leader’s alleged incompetence, while an equally reckless amount of footage is devoted to Churchill’s pretty young secretary reacting to the great man’s eccentricities with a mixture of trepidation and admiration.
Director Joe Wright and his production design team present endless scenes where rooms are illuminated with Rembrandt-worthy shafts of light that cut diagonally through dark spaces – it gives the impression that no one in 1940 London owned a lightbulb. CGI effects are used with little imagination and only serve to remind the viewer of the film’s artificiality.
To its credit, the film offers a masterful recreation of the subterranean Cabinet War Rooms, and Kristin Scott Thomas gets some amusing minutes on-screen by reimagining Churchill’s wife Clementine in the scene-stealing style of Eve Arden. But anyone seeking a genuine understanding of Churchill’s labors during this crucial period will be ill-served in this disposable entertainment.