Jonathan Teplitzky’s Churchill focuses on the tragedy of a previously indomitable, ageing leader recognising his failing powers to command in wartime in the tense lead-up to D-Day.
We Shall Fight Them on the Beachesby Alexa Dalby
CAUTION: Here be spoilers
It’s June 1944, three days to D-Day in World War II. As Prime Minister Churchill walks deep in thought along the beach, to him the waves are red with blood. Thinking of the loss of life he authorised 30 years earlier at Gallipoli, the young men who died, he tells himself, “I mustn’t let it happen again.”
Director Jonathan Teplitzky‘s film shows not the familiar indomitable image of Churchill in wartime, despite the iconic accessories, but an old man nearing the end of his strength after leading the country through years of war and the Blitz have taken their toll on him, and raging against those who remind him of it. His ministers and commanders of the armed forces know that now he has to be ‘managed’ and at times his beloved wife Clementine called in to deliver some home truths and pacify him.
Historian Alex von Tunzelmann’s screenplay (her first) is excellent on the detail of the period and on Churchill’s personal idiosyncrasies, and in shedding an expert light on the background to otherwise well-known historic events – the three days of Churchill’s reluctance to authorise the D-Day invasion planned by General Eisenhower (Mad Men‘s John Slattery) and his army chief Field Marshall Montgomery (Julian Wadham) and air force and navy (Jonathan Aris, George Anton) and their efforts to persuade and, finally, to overrule him. It was written with Brian Cox in mind to play Churchill – and he inhabits the role. He’s irascible, impossible at times, truculent, determined, heavy drinking, subject to depression, an occasional irrational bully living on the respect he’s earned from past glories and yet someone for whom it’s still possible to understand another point of view, to connect with others on a human level and be capable of great kindness, as he shows in the about-turn of his relationship with his inexperienced new secretary (Ella Purnell). Miranda Richardson is outstanding as Clementine Churchill, pitch perfect with a mixture of coddling him along, supporting him in the war effort and telling him off, yet knowing that this is at the expense of living her own life – “I live around your edges”, she tells him as tempers rise in the stress. He couldn’t have done it without her. Richard Durden as General Jan Smuts is Churchill’s neutral foil and companion to the highly charged military strategy meetings.
Like Shakespeare’s Lear, the reactions of those around him force Churchill to realise his own impotence in the decision making now that he is merely prime minister and not a soldier as he was in his youth. But if the D-Day landings are to happen, then he is misguidedly determined to lead the battle himself together with the King, and it takes King George VI (James Purefoy as a modest, unassuming royal), the only authority he will accept, to personally forbid him. Like him, he says, “My job is not to die, but to exist and be gracious.”
Churchill, the first of two films about him to be released this year, is a fascinating look at a compressed but crucial few days in Britain’s history. It’s a painstakingly directed and well-acted historical biopic.
Churchill is released on 16 June 2017 in the UK.