By Liam Lacey
Such handsomely-produced English series as ITV's Downton Abbey and Netflix's The Crown let us care about such characters as the fictional Lady Mary or the young Queen Elizabeth, heiresses of the dying British empire, struggling to stifle their private woes midst their very public privilege.
Who can resist the revealing tear in the steely gaze or the tremor in the stiff upper lip? Not to mention the acting, the decor, the costumes!
Winston Churchill, I think it's fair to say, was a more complex kettle of kippers. The cigar-chomping master of rhetoric, who "mobilized the English-language and sent it into war" as President John Kennedy said. Churchill was revered for inspiring England and its allies to defeat Hitler's war machine. But he has also been reviled as a racist war-monger and enemy of the working class. In short, a divisive figure.
All of this makes Churchill, Australian director Jonathan Teplitsky's tepid small-theatre version of the D-Day invasion feel particularly pointless, not to mention a waste of the great actors Brian Cox and Miranda Richardson.
The premise of Alex von Tunzelmann's script, untethered by supporting historical facts, is this: 72 years ago this week, on the final days before the D-Day invasion of June, 1944, Churchill (Cox) was wracked with depression and indecision. Walking on a beach, he flashes back to his disastrous 1915 beach-head attack on the Gallipoli peninsula. He imagines the shore covered with corpses with a crimson froth on the sea. This invasion must be stopped!
On the morning of an important meeting, the Prime Minister confers with his Boer colleague, General Smuts (Richard Durden) carefully choosing his clothes and the words ("trial or tribuation?") for the speech he intends to deliver. The occasion is a meeting, held outdoors for no logical reason, with King George (James Purefoy), the Allied Supreme Commander, Dwight D. Eisenhower (Mad Men's John Slattery), and British generals Alan Clarke (Danny Webb) and Bernard Montgomery (Julian Wadham), to give the Normandy invasion the greenlight. The generals want to throw everything they have at the landing to begin the liberation of Europe. Only Churchill raises objections, frets and morbidly predicts that "I will not be able to live the rest of my life with this on my conscience!”
“I feel like a man chained to the chariot of a lunatic,” moans Montgomery, when the Prime Minister is off-screen.
Back at home, the Prime Minister hammers back Scotch, sleeps on the floor of his study, sweeps the dishes off the breakfast table in a rage and falls on his knees to exhort God to prevent the landing: "Let the sea churn into peaks and troughs and tidal wave,” before raising his glass to the great commander in the sky.
Finally, after being confronted by his understandably irate wife, Clementine (Richardson) and moved to tenderness by his young secretary (Ella Purnell), the old lion comes to his senses. It is time to leave the fighting to others, while he'll spend his time inspiring and comforting. Fortunately, D-Day turned out rather well for the good guys, and as the end title informs us, Churchill is “often acclamed as the greatest Briton of all time.”
If the film, Churchill, is being offered as evidence of that claim, I suspect even King Ethelred the Unready might launch a successful challenge.
Churchill. Directed by Jonathan Toplitzky, written by Alex von Tunzelmann, starring Brian Cox and Miranda Richardson. Opens Friday at the Cineplex Varsity.
Liam Lacey is a former film critic for The Globe and Mail, as well as contributor to various other media outlets over the past 37 years.. He recently returned to Canada from Spain because he forgot about the weather