Director: Jonathan Teplitzky
A bloke called Charlie Galbraith frequented my local pub in the late 1970’s. Today Charlie would be acknowledged as a semi-functioning alcoholic, but back in those somewhat less enlightened times, he was simply thought of by all and sundry as an old souse. In his cups – Charlie’s cups were as bottomless as The Horn of Plenty – he used to recite a mantra, an incantation if you will and it went something like this:
‘Old Winnie Churchill, Old Winnie Churchill, Old Winnie Churchill and he lives down south.’
Now, at that time, Old Winnie didn’t live down south anymore – as a matter of fact, he’d gone south more than a decade and a half earlier, but no matter, in the slap-happy mind of Charlie, Churchill, the man who led us triumphantly through the dark days of the war, was as tangible as cirrhosis of the liver.
That was the thing about Churchill. He had presence, even when he quite literally, didn’t. He was, he is, to use an overused expression, legendary, a status unlikely to be awarded any current politician and certainly not extended to the likes of Bonar Law or Henry Campbell Bannerman.
By way of evidence, despite having assumed room temperature nearly 60 years ago, Sir Winston Leonard Spencer-Churchill continues to be a regular player in contemporary drama, having been portrayed by, amongst others, such heavy hitters as Albert Finney, Timothy Spall, Brendon Gleeson and er, Christian Slater. Here, it’s Brian Cox’s turn and arguably, this is the definitive version. He doesn’t really look like him but he definitely and comprehensively inhabits the man.
First, the plot. It’s a couple of days prior to the Normandy landings and Churchill, who feels he’s being sidelined by the combined forces of Eisenhower, Montgomery and Father Time, is totally opposed to the plan. Haunted by the memory of the disastrous Dardanelles Campaign of WW1 – bear in mind that, despite a script penned by renowned historian Alex von Tunzelmann, the recognised facts are casually scrambled for dramatic effect – he raises a number of objections, all of which fall on deaf ears. The message is clear: leave this to the soldiers, Winston, your job is to stand back and lead the cheer squad.
The point here is the old boy’s relevance – he questions it at length – and it’s the fulcrum on which the movie pivots. Historical events are summarily sacrificed for a study of how the Churchill legend emerged and to what extent the man, despite his many and varied human failings, contributed to its construction. There’s plenty of detail in the assembly. We see most of Winston’s props – the booze and cigars, the zip up shoes, the homburg, the black dog, bluster and boiler suit. Miranda Richardson as Clemmie, his loyal but far from credulous wife is superb as the voice of reason, reminding Churchill that he’s a man as well as a leader, suggesting somewhat subtly that while he was advocating a conflict on the beaches and the landing grounds, he may well have neglected the small matter of the skirmish in their bedroom; despite his macho self-image, asked if he was interested in super sex, Winnie would almost certainly have plumped for the soup. Indeed, there’s more than a whiff of guilt and sex floating around, Churchill at one point invoking moony memories of his mother, American beauty Jennie Jerome, a woman said to have had beguiled and seduced numerous desirous upper class twits, engendering, apparently, more animated willie’s than Dudley D. Watkins.
As a study of the man and the legend, Churchill works on both counts, entirely as a result of Cox’s bravura performance. It’s all there – the snuffling, the chuntering, the ego and the whisky – lots and lots of whisky and as such, it’s eminently palatable. Not that there aren’t any weak links, some of the side action being as shaky as Stevens of that ilk. Specifically, a sub plot involving Churchill’s secretary which adds nothing to the story, John ‘Mad Men’ Slattery, totally miscast as Eisenhower and the scene where Montgomery rallies the troops prior to D-Day, hopelessly compromised by the fact that, presumably for budget reasons, the entire regiment of squaddies would struggle to form a five a side team..
Essentially however, the film is all about Brian Cox and on that basis it’s great. Even a cornball scene where WC is on his knees praying to God for rain in order that the invasion can be postponed, laughably trite in most actor’s hands, is wholly rescued by the skills of the master technician Cox undoubtedly is. It could have been terrible – it really should have been terrible, but somehow, amazingly, it isn’t and works.
‘Oh, how I wish I had a drink’, Winston exclaims, on the few times in the film when he isn’t actually having one. Old Charlie Galbraith, as I recall, used to say exactly the same thing, but because he didn’t work on his legacy as avidly as Churchill clearly did – (and also because, outside of the confines of the Burgh Bar Charlie was completely anonymous), history has only bestowed legendary status on one of them. They also serve who only stand and drink, said Milton (nearly). Charlie and indeed old Winnie, would, I’m sure, completely concur.
Might appeal to people who enjoyed:
Young Winston, Our Winston, Your Winston, A’body’s Winston.