Exemplary Evocation of a Prime Minister on the Edge
I interviewed Gay Byrne once and asked him what he thought was the main reason for his success in broadcasting. He replied tartly, “Events, dear boy, events!” What he meant was that he’d simply been in the right place at the right time.
Perhaps the same could be said of Winston Churchill. Churchill had a relatively quiet political career before World War II and an equally quiet one after it but when it was raging he seemed to be the fulcrum of people’s hopes with his high-flown rhetoric.
He also had a delightfully arrogant personality. When he was on his deathbed he was asked how he felt about the hereafter and replied, “I am prepared to meet my Maker. Whether my Maker is prepared for the great ordeal of meeting me is another matter!”
It’s his ‘black dog’ depression more than anything else that Jonathan Teplitzky’s film focuses on, his sense of himself as a “clapped-out, moth-eaten old lion”. It covers only a short time frame, the days leading up to ‘Operation Overlord’ (D-Day) in 1944 when the Americans landed in Normandy and liberated western Europe from the Nazis.
Churchill disapproved of the offensive because of a similarly botched invasion of Gallipoli which he’d overseen in 1915. His tormented efforts to bring the other D-Day proponents – Field Marshal Montgomery, General Eisenhower, even King George – around to his way of thinking form the main business of this beautifully modulated film.
When he eventually decides the landing might be a good idea after all we get the famous radio speech he made which lifted the hearts of all who heard it. Unfortunately, the actor playing him, Brian Cox, delivers this without the expected passion, which means the film ends on something of an anti-climax.
If you’re going to make a movie about war that doesn’t have bullets or battlegrounds you need something to fill that vacuum. Cox’s speech could have easily done that but he underplays it rather boringly. It’s a huge opportunity for a ‘wow’ ending and he blows it. Why?
The only reason I can come up with for such a lapse is that Teplitzky wanted to make an atmospheric moodpiece. He might also have felt that the energy demonstrated by a fire-and-brimstone finale would have had too many echoes of that other recent British hit, The Kings’ Speech. By going for a muted approach he continues the tone of refined gentility that has been the film’s keynote up to this point.
Its only other fault, I thought, was that Cox didn’t always look enough like Churchill. But he’s an excellent actor and what he lacks in facial resemblance he makes up for in his expressions, his girth, his apparel, his cigar-chomping. And of course that inimitable gruffness he showers on his wife, his secretary and indeed anyone else he brushes up against in those angst-ridden days leading up to the moment when Hitler’s military meltdown began.