“The Darkest Hour”

Churchillian drama is abundant in cinema, but Director Joe Wright has added a tenderness not often seen in the gruff Churchill. Gary Oldman is sure to be an Oscar winner with his portrayal of Winston as Clementine’s Project. We begin with a curmudgeon in bed lighting a cigar. The spark flares as Churchill does.

The premise of the film, superbly written by Anthony McCarten, is one of ideals. Should Churchill negotiate a peace treaty with Nazi Germany or take a huge risk with the liberty of a nation?

“The Darkest Hour” begins on May 9th, 1940. We see images of helmeted men, tanks, and Hitler. Three million German troops are on Belgium’s border. The Nazi Peril has Parliament doubting that Neville Chamberlain can lead the British in wartime.

The initial bed scene with Winston’s black pen, clock, morning whiskey, and strong, secretarial demands for double-spacing his missives,  is brilliant.  His curmudgeon side has him calling his first typist a “ninconpoop” for striking the keys too loudly. Verbally abused to tears, she continues to throw the carriage. As the verbal lambasting continues, she runs from the bedside to be soothed by Kristin Scott Thomas, Churchill’s wife Clementine.

The film depiction of  Winston’s wife, Clem, had me borrowing her biography from a friend and neighbor. I was as enthralled by Kristin Scott Thomas’ portrayal, as I am with the biography written by Clementine and Winston’s  daughter Mary Soames. The book published in 1979, “ Clementine Churchill: The Biography of a Marriage” is as enlightening as the film.

Thomas was given lots to work with, and she makes quite a remarkable portrait of the force behind Churchill. She admonishes Winston with three adjectives: “…rough, rude, overbearing~not as kind as you used to be.” She calmly proceeds with a compliment: “ I want others to love and respect you as I do.” It works. The second typist, the lovely Lily James of “Cinderella” fame, fares better.

A second image of Churchill, garbed in black, has him rising in a golden elevator to heights unknown. Oldman is a marvel at showing a multi-dimensional and complex man, yet Clementine’s rejoiner to the underling typist rings true, too: “He is a man like any other”.

McCarten’s script plays up the class distinctions only to dissolve them. Churchill is depicted as never having ridden a bus, and his speech for a new administration to include all classes is balanced by his dictation given from a steamy bathroom and his monogrammed pajamas in the ready.  His  mastery of phrase will remind some that Churchill won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1953.

The politics of  winning the  Prime Minister post, the war cabinet map room , the seven million refugees on the move, all give the story a hefty  scope. The cinematography with its close-ups of stamps, slow motion umbrellas opening,  and  a dead soldier’s red eye reflection adds to the viewers’ understanding of truth.

After seeing this film, one will no longer just remember Churchill’s gruffness, his “Will you stop interrupting me interrupting you” . One  will remember the romantic fantasy of fighting to the end, and his: “You can not reason with a tiger when your head is in his mouth.” One will remember Dunkirk and the lonely Churchill. One will remember a king considering leaving with his family for Canadian soil. And one will remember Clementine’s wisdom  and love: “You are wise because you have doubts.”

The last minutes of this film are stirring: “We the people” stuff. Dont miss it.

“The Invisible Woman”

This film directed and acted by Ralph Fiennes is an exquisite period piece that channels Victorian England by dramatizing Charles Dickens as a successful forty-year-old luminary embarking on an affair with an eighteen-year-old, inexperienced girl. The screenplay is based on Claire Tomalin’s 1991 dramatic biography “The Invisible Woman:The Story of Nelly Ternan and Charles Dickens”.

This film shares the same question one may ask after reading “Fifty Shades of Grey”: Can impressionable young woman be protected from the narcissitic manipulations of high-ranking men? And in the case of Nelly,can a mother contract her daughter out for the promise of economic stability? No matter how archetypal the theme,this arranged mistress storyline smarts;and Dickens’reputation is lowered a notch or two. Those who see this as a true love story may disagree. The film balances both takes,and it is my moralizing that judges Dickens and his ilk harshly. The privileged male syndrome has had its comeuppance, I hope.Preying on those coming of age in order to achieve one’s sexual desires is verboten by most. A romantic muse need not lead to carnal displays . As I reread this,I fear that I am the “Victorian”! Yet,I was very satisfied with the film,even after three weeks of seeing trailers that misled the public.

Attention to detail sets this film apart. A 2014 Oscar win for Costume Design was almost assured with the film’s twelve million dollar budget. One frame is especially stunning. Felicity Jones, as Nelly, is encased in lavender and white gauze against grey and lavender clouds. The ensuing effect takes one’s breathe away. Scarlett O’Hara in “Gone With The Wind” came to mind, as did Lara in “Dr. Zhivago”.

The three female actresses Felicity Jones as Nelly,Kristin Scott Thomas as Nelly’s mother and Joanna Scanlan, as Catherine Dickens, Charles’ wife are a trilogy of talent. With the use of a narrator and flashbacks, the not so secret love affair unfolds. Scanlan drew tears from my eyes as she suffered with her husband’s infidelity and brutal abandonment. She commanded the screen and used silence and a query as no other has. An Oscar loss,she did not deserve.

Fiennes stepped into the part of Dickens when as director he lost his leading man. He played Dickens as vain,love-sotted and scheming. Both tender and cruel. Full of life affirming possibility and vigor. At the time Dickens was writing “Great Expectations” he ironically had a few of his own.

In this film, one noticed the silence in lieu of background music. When the violins did start, it was heart-rending. A “Dr. Zhivago” for the Anglophile ! Did I leave anything out?