London Film Review: ‘War Book’

Tom Harper's talky drama examines the possible strategies and scenarios that might follow a nuclear attack.

Ben Chaplin, Sophie Okonedo, Shaun Evans, Kerry Fox, Antony Sher, Phoebe Fox, Nicholas Burns, Nathan Stewart-Jarrett, Adeel Akhtar.

Official Site: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt2936978/

The Cold War may be over, but our planet is no safer from the dangers of escalating nuclear conflict, according to “War Book,” a modestly achieved British chamber piece that reunites the director (Tom Harper) and screenwriter (Jack Thorne) of 2009’s “The Scouting Book for Boys.” Largely confined to a wood-paneled meeting room, the pic presents animated discussions between a U.K. government minister and several aides as they work through the implications of a nuclear device exploding in South Asia. An alarming (or perhaps alarmist) scenario and cast names should help this verbose drama hit its target as talking-point TV, with occasional theatrical berths.

Pre-credits text explains that, since the 1960s, British civil servants have met to play out war-game scenarios, their discussions helping them to formulate government procedure in the event of nuclear attack. Now, in 2014, eight officials — plus the unexpected bonus of the defense secretary (Nicholas Burns) — meet briefly over three successive days, exploring unappealing scenarios that would be triggered by a Pakistani group detonating a nuclear bomb in Mumbai, India.

Reasonably fearing that audiences won’t want to watch such lengthy discussions, Thorne maintains an unflagging pace by ensuring that all the participants are monumentally busy with their regular workloads, especially since outside, in the real world, a truckers’ blockade threatens to bring the country to a halt (as actually happened in September 2000). Each day’s convocation plays out in real time, in less than 30 minutes, raising the question of whether these officials would choose to burden their calendars with three separate meetings of such brevity. Questions of plausibility aside, this tactic undoubtedly improves the film’s rhythm, as decisions in multiple policy areas are taken with extreme rapidity by a show of hands.

Day one sees the participants, each standing in for a government minister, discuss immediate responses in areas of health, border control, law and order, financial regulation and diplomacy. On the following days, as the imagined scenario becomes progressively bleaker, the proxy ministers must consider ever more dire options, including, ultimately, the U.K.’s own nuclear response.

Young aide Tom (Shaun Evans), representing the Department of Health, emerges as the most impassioned dove; hawkish alpha male Gary (Ben Chaplin), a special adviser who is playing the prime minister in these discussions, delights in macho provocation. Senior civil servant Philippa (Sophie Okonedo) is a calming presence as the meeting’s chair, while no-nonsense Maria (Kerry Fox) provides a more maturely persuasive voice for tough action. A sleazy private flirtation between Gary and junior aide Kate (Phoebe Fox), dropped in as a curtain raiser on day three, offers welcome punctuation and introduces fresh information, hinting that the ongoing discussions might soon have an urgent relevance.

Ultimately, the British establishment is clearly happier dishing out wisdom than receiving it, even when the topic is conflict between two Asian nations. Thorne’s dialogue becomes increasingly theatrical as the stakes rise; each actor more or less gets their moment in the sun, although it may be no accident that two of the three characters of color (played by Adeel Akhtar and Nathan Stewart-Jarrett) are heard the least. As Roger Donaldson’s “Thirteen Days” proved, a talkathon rooted in a historical moment of genuine peril can be far more gripping than any invented drama, and many audiences may find the final act of “War Book” to be risibly paranoid by comparison.

Tech credits are unlikely to burnish any particular crew member’s resume, although casting director Julie Harkin deserves credit for delivering this ensemble for a production of presumably modest resources. The widescreen framing might seem a spuriously cinematic choice for such an intimate setting, but it suits the conference room’s layout. The sparse score is used judiciously, the verbal pyrotechnics hardly requiring much musical accompaniment.

Popular on Variety

London Film Review: 'War Book'

Reviewed at Soho Screening Rooms, Oct. 7, 2014. (In London Film Festival — Debate.) Running time: 95 MIN.

Production: (U.K.) A K5 Intl. and K5 Media Capital presentation in association with Stray Bear Films and Popcorn Storm of a Sixteen Films and Archer’s Mark production. Produced by Lauren Dark, Tom Harper. Executive producers, Mike Brett, Steve Jamison, Ivana MacKinnon, Oliver Simon, Daniel Baur.

Crew: Directed by Tom Harper. Screenplay, Jack Thorne. Camera (color, widescreen, HD), Zac Nicholson; editor, Mark Eckersley; music, Jack C Arnold; production designer, Jacqueline Abrahams; costume designer, Matthew Price; sound (Dolby Digital), Paul Schwartz; supervising sound editor, Lee Walpole; re-recording mixers, Stuart Hilliker, Forbes Noonan; visual effects supervisor, Henry Badgett; visual effects, Bluebolt; line producer, Sophie Neave; assistant director, Liam Lock; casting, Julie Harkin.

With: Ben Chaplin, Sophie Okonedo, Shaun Evans, Kerry Fox, Antony Sher, Phoebe Fox, Nicholas Burns, Nathan Stewart-Jarrett, Adeel Akhtar.

More Film

  • German Cinema Is Diverse, But Is

    German Cinema Is Varied, But Is It Too Risk Averse?

    One of the strengths of German cinema is its diversity, says Simone Baumann, managing director of the national film promotion agency German Films. As well as the three films at Toronto directed by female German helmers, there was also German filmmaker Thomas Heise’s documentary film essay “Heimat Is a Space in Time.” Then there were [...]

  • Female Filmmakers in Germany Make Progress

    Female Filmmakers Surge Forward in Germany, But Still Face Obstacles

    Four feature films by German filmmakers screened at the Toronto Film Festival, and three of them were directed by women – Angela Schanelec’s “I Was at Home, But…,” winner of the Berlinale’s best director prize, Ina Weisse’s “The Audition,” and Katrin Gebbe’s “Pelican Blood,” the latter two both starring Nina Hoss. Germany’s Oscar entry this [...]

  • Bull

    Annie Silverstein's 'Bull' Takes Top Awards, Robert Pattinson Starrer 'The Lighthouse' Wins Jury Prize at Deauville

    Annie Silverstein’s feature debut “Bull” swept three awards at the 45th Deauville American Film Festival, including the Grand Prize, the Revelation Prize for best first film and the Critics’ Prize. “Bull,” a portrait of a rebellious teenage girl from South Texas, world premiered at Cannes’s Un Certain Regard and marks Silverstein’s follow up to her [...]

  • Constance Wu and Jennifer Lopez star

    Jennifer Lopez's 'Criminal' Striptease: How 'Hustlers' Landed the Fiona Apple Hit

    Contrary to what you might be expecting, the number of songs by Jennifer Lopez, Lizzo and Cardi B in “Hustlers,” their newly released acting vehicle, adds up to … zero. Meanwhile, the standout music sync in a movie that’s full of them belongs to no less likely a choice than Fiona Apple. The scene in [...]

  • Game of Thrones Season 8

    'Game of Thrones,' 'Avengers' Win Big at 45th Annual Saturn Awards

    As Jamie Lee Curtis picked up her first trophy ever at the 45th Annual Saturn Awards Friday night, she had a good luck charm on her arm: former manager Chuck Binder, whom she said was the reason she became an actor. “I was in college and had no thought of being an actor,” Curtis told [...]

  • Jennifer Lopez and Constance Wu star

    Box Office: 'Hustlers' Dances Toward $32 Million Opening Weekend

    “Hustlers” is eyeing the biggest opening weekend ever for STXFilms, following a Friday domestic ticket haul of $13.1 million from 3,250 theaters. If estimates hold, the stripper saga could take home around $32 million come Sunday, marking the best live-action opening of Jennifer Lopez’s career. “Hustlers” follows a group of former strip club dancers, led [...]

  • Hustlers intimacy coordinator

    Meet the Stripper Consultant Who Gave 'Hustlers' Authenticity, Dignity and Sexual Freedom

    At last week’s Toronto Film Festival premiere of “Hustlers,” an audience of Hollywood heavyweights and Canadian locals applauded as a statuesque woman strutted on stage, rocking six-inch platform heels and a pastel tie-dye bodysuit. This adoration was not for stars Jennifer Lopez, Constance Wu or Keke Palmer, nor was it for the film’s acclaimed writer-director [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content