Miranda Richardson saves D-Day drama from running aground
He’s one of the most iconic figures from 20th century history and often number one in polls to find the greatest Briton, so is there really anything more to be said about Winston Churchill? Director Jonathan Teplitsky certainly thinks so.
Instead of a conventional bio-pic, Churchill presents us with a few, critical days in the life of the British war time leader – the run-up to the D Day landings in 1944. Leading the country against Nazi Germany since 1939 has taken its toll on Churchill (Brian Cox). Away from the cameras and his public speeches, he’s less great than he appears: more of a toothless lion who still roars, but has little effect. Younger, more dynamic military officers are leading the way, with help from the Americans, and his clout is limited. And, haunted by his memories of Gallipoli, he’s deeply concerned that the strategy for D Day could result in tens of thousands of unnecessary deaths.
The film’s neo-thriller structure and pace has the clock ticking as D Day approaches: as the weather forecast famously provides a precarious window to launch the invasion: as Churchill tries to stop it happening and, as history shows, fails. He’s increasingly out of touch, with what his allies think and how the war is affecting ordinary people, represented here by one of his secretaries, Kay Summersby (Angela Costello). Even though his political power is ebbing away, it’s still lonely at the top – and not just for him. His wife, Clementine (Miranda Richardson) is constant in her support, but frequently has to act as peacemaker when he explodes at yet another member of staff. Even General Eisenhower (John Slattery) feels that isolation, despite regular letters home to his wife.
Curiously Teplitsky has opted for actors who bear little or no resemblance to the people they’re portraying: not essential, admittedly, but a little similarity can help with credibility. Slattery doesn’t have Eisenhower’s round, benevolent features. Julian Wadham, who plays Montgomery, is bigger than the real life Field Marshal – oddly enough, Danny Webb as Alanbrooke, is a much better match – and doesn’t have his speech impediment. Nothing to do with credibility: it’s just downright inaccurate. James Purefoy does give George VI a stammer but, again, he doesn’t look much like the King. The one exception is Miranda Richardson as Clemmy, whose resemblance is as startling as the others are negligible and, coincidentally, hers is the stand-out performance. She beautifully portrays the exasperation of an intelligent, independent woman who constantly finds herself coming second best and yet, despite all her frustrations, still loves and cares for her husband.
But the film has a serious and fundamental problem in the casting of Brian Cox. One of our most consistently fine actors, he gives his performance, as you would expect, 100% commitment, but starts off at a disadvantage. He’s miscast. This isn’t his finest hour and it’s sad to watch but, despite all his efforts and talent, that essential spark is missing. You’re horribly conscious for most of the film that you’re watching the actor, instead of being persuaded that you’re watching Churchill.
Churchill doesn’t give us a heroic Winston, more of an introspective, haunted older man worn down by the burdens of the job. But without the right actor leading the way, it’s on shaky ground. Not even Miranda Richardson’s splendid Clemmy can redress the balance – and we simply don’t see enough of her for that to happen.
Churchill is in cinemas now. Listen to our interview with its director, Jonathan Teplitsky, here.