sun 17/12/2017

Churchill review - Winston has smallness thrust upon him | reviews, news & interviews

Churchill review - Winston has smallness thrust upon him

Churchill review - Winston has smallness thrust upon him

Brian Cox is the latest to play the Great Briton in a chamber piece set in the days before D-Day

Brian Cox as Churchill: how's that invasion you've been working on?

He may often be voted Greatest Briton in the History of Everything, but are we approaching peak Winston? Scroll down Churchill’s IMDb entry and you’ll find that he’s been played by every Tom, Dick and Harry in all manner of cockamamie entertainments. The key pillars of his filmography are (apart from Young Winston) as follows: The Gathering Storm (Albert Finley) and Into the Storm (Brendan Gleeson), both scripted by Hugh Whitemore; The King’s Speech (Timothy Spall); The Crown (John Lithgow). Then on stage there’s been The Audience (various actors) and Three Days in May (Warren Clarke), a short-lived West End play about Churchill’s appeasement wobble in 1940.

Between them the above cover the major moments in the Churchill myth: the wilderness years of raging against the Nazis while no one listened, the relationship with various monarchs, his and Britain’s finest hour in 1940, and the landslide defeat at the hands of Clement Attlee in 1945. The latest contribution is Churchill. Starring Brian Cox, directed by Jonathan Teplitzky (The Railway Man) and written by scriptwriting debutant Alex Von Tunzelmann, it takes place in the tense period leading up to D-Day. General Eisenhower (John Slattery) is Supreme Allied Commander overseeing the big push and Churchill, fearful of another total wipe-out like Passchendaele, is doing his best/worst to stick an oar in. First he wants the whole show to be postponed and then, when Ike refuses to cave in, he insists that he stands on the bridge of one of the ships crossing the Channel.

The drama pits Churchill’s vaunted sense of himself as the hero of 1940 against the sidelined lion of 1944. Then, Britain stood alone. Now, he’s no longer in charge of his own military and reduced, to his intense frustration, to being a mere politician. His battered ego is shored up by the people: “You’re the one, sir, the one who will see us through,” says someone. Two schoolboys give him the V-for-victory sign as his car passes. But others don’t fall in with the idea of his infallibility: his dogged aide-de-camp Smuts (Richard Durden), the querulous Montgomery (Julian Wadham), the baffled Eisenhower and above all the long-suffering wife, Clemmie (Miranda Richardson with Brian Cox, pictured below).Churchill, Brian CoxClemmie’s trials as the great man’s spouse never seem to move on. She sighs and tuts and gives the brittle, obstreperous monster an occasional piece of her mind. In this version she sticks up for herself with particular testiness. “Don’t assume you’re the only one capable of making decisions,” she snaps. Another time she gives him a slap, and practically puts him on the naughty step when he abuses his nervous new secretary (Ella Purnell).

As a study of an old man desperate to remain useful and relevant, the story has a more than local resonance. Fear of invisibility is something all superannuated egotists will understand, from Lear downwards. As history its accuracy feels compromised, not least in the script’s craven nods to contemporary speech. “Is this about the war?” he asks Clemmie after one spat. “Or is this about you and me?” One suspects the author of The History of the English Speaking Peoples probably never stooped to such a slangy construction. (Ike uses it too: “Is this about Montgomery?”) At the other end of the scale, when he prays for rain on the night before the invasion he addresses the almighty with an outrageous oratorical mash-up of cod Shakespeare (“Call spirits from the vasty deep!”). Another problem is a tendency to repetition. Churchill’s slanging matches with Eisenhower and Montgomery over D-Day and comparisons with the first war are played and replayed. It’s like going to a musical with only one (really loud) tune.

Teplitzky seems not to have much money to play with in what is essentially a chamber piece. When Monty addresses the troops there’s barely anyone to listen. To stress Churchill’s loneliness various one-on-ones take place against grand widescreen backdrops – a huge empty hall, or a landscape with a monument.

Cox, whose tangy Dundonian burr lurks just under the surface, has said in an interview that he based his performance on Stewie Griffin from Family Guy. If anything Stewie is less prone to caterwauls and strops. The film’s subtlest moment finds George VI, in a long, practically Handelian aria delivered sotto voce by James Purefoy, persuading Winston that they’d best not take to sea with the D-Day armada. In the quieter moments Churchill succumbs to the black dog, the sad subtleties of which are not explored in any depth.

Finally, this is a hagiography which sentimentalises its subject as a childish totem who must learn to grow up and let go. It’s perfectly entertaining, but this Winston has had smallness thrust upon him.

@JasperRees

Fear of invisibility is something all superannuated egotists will understand, from Lear downwards

rating

Editor Rating: 
3
Average: 3 (1 vote)

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