John Ostrander: My Own Private Film Fest

by John Ostrander

It’s starting to get chilly outside which makes it a good time to stay indoors, get cozy, and watch movies. Sometimes – usually by accident – I find I’ve created my own personal mini movie festival around a theme or a certain actor or genre. I have a Christmas mini festival and Mary is putting together a Halloween one.

I did it recently around a specific time and place; Britain just before or early in the Second World War. All the films were, in one way or another, historical movies. Some characters are repeated in more than one film although in different interpretations and, of course, the events overlap but without being repetitive.

I wanted all four films to be of recent manufacture; time lends some perspective. However, we also have to remember that we as viewers know how the overall story turns out. When you’re a participant in the middle of it, you don’t, and that causes some anxiety. For example, we — at this time — don’t know how the story of the American adventure with the Trump Presidency is going to turn out and that is causing some anxiety.

If we go chronologically, we’ll start with Miss Pettigrew Lives For a Day (2008) directed by Bharat Nailuri. It stars Frances McDormand, Amy Adams, Lee Pace (you knew him as Ronan the Accuser), Ciaran Hinds, Mark Strong, and Shirley Henderson (Moaning Myrtle in the Harry Potter films).

The story is set in London just before World War 2 and, while a romantic comedy, the sense of the coming war’s dark shadow overlays it. There are constant reminders and two of the older characters who lived through the First World War have a deep dread of the coming conflict.

The cast is uniformly fine. Ms. McDormand would later win an Oscar for her performance in Three Billboards. . .and is just as fine here. Ms. Adams, besides being a terrific actor with fine comedic chops, also has a beautiful singing voice and makes interesting use of it here. Her character, Delysia, is a nightclub singer who intends to star in a West End musical and go on to Hollywood.

The trick Ms. Adams uses is that Delysia isn’t quite as good a singer as she thinks she is. Amy Adams IS a very good singer but she allows Delysia to be not quite as good (I heard and adored Amy Adams in Enchanted and the gal can sing) and that plays into a key moment in the climax.

Miss Pettigrew serves as a good prelude for this mini-festival, setting the stage for the war to come. It’s also a very delightful and entertaining film, one that I’ve watched often.

Next up we have The King’s Speech (2010) directed by Tom Hooper and starring Colin Firth, Geoffrey Rush, Helena Bonham Carter, Derek Jacobi, Michael Gambon, and Guy Pearce. Firth won the Best Actor Oscar for his performance as King George VI.

The movie is set just prior to and through the opening weeks of the Second World War. Firth’s King George VI (aka Prince Albert, aka Bertie) has a bad stammer and during the course of the movie receives speech therapy from the unorthodox Lionel Logue. His brother Edward becomes king on the death of their father but must abdicate when he resolves to marry the American divorcee, Wallis Simpson and Bertie must ascend the throne.

The climax of the film focuses on the speech Bertie must make on the radio to the country and the Empire following the declaration of War between the U.K. and Nazi Germany.

The slender thread the film tries to sell us is how vitally important it is that the King make the speech without tripping over his own tongue. I’m not unsympathetic; I had a bad stammer myself as a boy. I find it difficult, however, to entirely buy just how truly important the speech was. Perhaps it was; I wasn’t there.

The movie makes the climax suspenseful and the cast carries it off and the movie won a bucket of Oscars, including Best Film, Best Director, Best Actor, and Best original Screenplay (David Seidler). It was also nominated for several others, including Best Supporting Actor (Geoffrey Rush, who should have got it), Best Actress in a Supporting Role (Helena Bonham Carter) and six others. Again, a film I’ve watched and enjoyed many times.

Side note: Harry Potter fans will note the number of Potter film alumni in The King’s Speech, including Ms. Bonham Carter, Michael Gambon (Dumbledore in most of the films), and Timothy Spall, who plays Churchill in The King’s Speech, also did Wormtail in the Potter series. It may be a rule over in the U.K. that each film must employ x amount of actors from the Potter Players.

We now come to 2017’s Darkest Hour (directed by Joe Wright) which overlaps The King’s Speech quite a bit, taking us from pre-war up through the early months of World War 2. Gary Oldman won his well deserved Oscar for his portrayal of Winston Churchill.

The movie, like The King’s Speech, climaxes with a speech – in this case Churchill’s famous speech to the House of Commons on June 4, 1940 of “We shall fight them on the beaches. . .”

I was unaware just how dark the hour was until this movie; there were real discussions in Churchill’s cabinet of surrender. The British army was trapped (along with French and Belgian soldiers) on the beaches of Dunkirk on the coast of France, with the real probability of being captured or annihilated. There was little that would keep a Nazi invasion from taking the island kingdom and that would have made a very different war.

Oldman’s Churchill is very different from Spall’s portrayal in The King’s Speech and the relationship between Churchill and the King is quite different in the two films. It’s very warm and rather friendly in the prior film; not so much in Darkest Hour, although the two do come to an understanding and support each other.

Oldman’s portrayal of Churchill stands right up there with Daniel Day Lewis’s portrayal of Lincoln. It should be regarded as definitive. You don’t see the actor (hard to do anyway under the clothes and make-up); you get a sense of watching the person although it is just one film’s version of that person.

This film seems to defy the Potter Player’s rule although there seems a good representation from the Dark Knight trilogy that Christopher Nolan directed. Oldman, of course, did (Commissioner) Jim Gordon in all three films and Ben Mendelsohn, who is George VI in this film, also played Daggett in The Dark Knight Rises.

Mentioning The Dark Knight trilogy also brings us to the last film in our mini-festival, 2017’s Dunkirk, directed by the Dark Knight’s director, Christopher Nolan. The film has a sprawling cast but it would be hard for me to pick a central star. It does HAVE stars such as Tom Hardy, Mark Rylance, and Kenneth Branagh, but the story has no central plot and so no central star, IMO.

This film very definitely overlaps the climax of Darkest Hour and is referred to constantly in that story. It is, in fact, central to the resolution of Darkest Hour. Dunkirk is not an easy movie to watch; Nolan is not temporally linear with his plot. Several stories are going on at the same time and we see events first from one perspective and then another. Keeping it all straight can be demanding but it is rewarding.

A key element in the film is the score by Hans Zimmer. I’m appreciative in general of film scores but this one really stands out for me. It is relentless. Not only does it help unite the film but it also keeps tightening the tension. It ratchets up your pulse and doesn’t let it drop until the end of the film. It’s very effective but almost too hard to take. If you have a heart condition, I’d be careful. Seriously.

Dunkirk does have a Potter Player in Kenneth Branagh and, of course, its connection to the Dark Knight trilogy is the director, Christopher Nolan. Yay, pop culture!

By my reckoning, all these films occur within about a three year period, 1937 to mid 1940. Each film, taken by itself, is a very good film but they do benefit from seeing them together. All four are fiction and fiction is allowed to change facts to benefit narrative; they all have different goals and different takes on the characters. That said, I think taken together it can give a feel for that time. One of the primary benefits of fiction is that it can give context, to understand people in a given time and place.

Hopefully, someone in the future can do that with our time and place. I wonder what they will say and which of us will be there to hear it.


John Ostrander is one of LB’s favorite writers in any medium. It’s been awhile since he’s been here, but now John’s back with a new column at a new blog, PopCultureSquad, where this piece first appeared (with lots of pictures even). You can learn more about John and his many masterworks HERE

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