Doubts on eve of D-Day
In October 1951, when I had just turned 12, I sent a fan letter to the newly re-elected prime minister Winston Churchill — and to my surprise he replied, thanking me for my good wishes and support. At the time I was naive enough to assume the letter was actually signed by the great man. Of course it wasn’t. At any rate, the fact he bothered to reply at all registered strongly with me, because for my parents and most of their friends Churchill was the hero who won World War II for the Allies. I mention this because I’ve always had a soft spot for Churchill, and so I was eagerly anticipating a new film bearing his name.
Australian director Jonathan Teplitzky’s Churchill is concerned with just four days in the political leader’s life — the days leading up to and including the D-Day landings in June 1944, Operation Overlord.
According to the screenplay by Alex von Tunzelmann, Churchill, then 70, was suffering from one of the severe fits of deep depression (black dog, as his doctor called it) to which he was prone. He was deeply fearful that the invasion would be another catastrophe, like the Gallipoli campaign he had masterminded about 30 years earlier, and that he would be blamed, as he had been back in 1915. Churchill. so cleverly impersonated by Brian Cox in the film, argues bitterly with his commanding officers, with Field Marshal Bernard Montgomery (Julian Wadham), who seemingly can’t stand him — he tells him his last speech was full of “doubt, dithering and treachery” — and with General Dwight Eisenhower (John Slattery), who is patient with him up to a point, but says: “You’re trying to win the last war.”
Churchill claims the invasion plan is foolhardy, that it will end in tragedy, and he prays bad weather will prevent the invasion. His aide, former Boer leader Jan Smuts (Richard Durden), is concerned about him, as is Clementine (Miranda Richardson), his long-suffering wife, but she frequently loses her patience with him.
Matters come to a head when he demands to be allowed to take part in the invasion, and even asserts that King George VI (James Purefoy) should sail with the Allied armada; this fanciful notion is quickly quashed by the king.
Constantly wreathed in cigar smoke, with a tumbler of whisky never far away, Churchill as depicted here is as far from a great wartime leader as it’s possible to imagine. Yet, of course, he overcame his depression, and the film ends with news that the landings have been successful and that the tide of war has turned; there’s no mention of his postwar electoral defeat or his extraordinary 1951 comeback.
How close to the truth all this is I can’t say, but it makes for some powerful drama, despite the rather limp device of introducing a young typist (Ella Purnell) who keeps making mistakes and who, at a key moment, reveals her fiance is a midshipman in the invasion fleet. This is supposed to inject a down-to-earth, human element into the events, but it feels contrived.
Cox is magnificent as Churchill (praise is due for Cate Hall, who is credited with hair and make-up), Richardson imbues Clementine with common sense and patience, and the rest of the cast — though in truth they don’t look much like the famous people they portray — does everything expected of it. The film seems to have been made on a modest budget (there are no scenes of warfare) but it’s none the worse for that. It is not in the same class as the director’s endearing Aussie comedy Gettin’ Square (2003), but it’s far from negligible. The fourth feature made by the very talented Romanian director Cristian Mungiu, Graduation, shared the award for best director last year at Cannes, and deservedly so. His previous films have explored the lives of ordinary Romanians under the dictatorship of Nicolae Ceausescu, but this one is set firmly in the present. Still, the shadow of the communist strongman lingers on in the “new” Romania, not least in a grassroots system of wholesale corruption.
The film’s central character is Dr Roman Aldea (Adrian Titieni), who lives in a grim-looking block of apartments in a shabby street with his defeated wife, Magda (Lia Bugnar), and his pretty, intelligent daughter, Eliza (Maria Dragus). Near the beginning of the film someone — never identified — throws a rock through the window of the family’s apartment, and there’s a pervasive feeling of barely concealed threat that permeates the neighbourhood. Eliza is about to take her vital graduation exams and, depending on her marks, a scholarship to Cambridge may be confirmed. But on the morning of the exam, after her father has dropped her near the school, Eliza is assaulted, robbed and almost raped, though she manages to fight off her attacker.
Her father hears the news while spending time with his mistress, Sandra (Malina Manovici), a single mother and teacher at Eliza’s school. Realising his daughter has been traumatised by the assault, Aldea sets about pulling strings to make sure she gets the marks he’s convinced she deserves. The local police inspector (Vlad Ivanov), an old friend, suggests he contact Bulai (Petre Ciubotaru), the vice-mayor, who needs a liver transport but who, despite his status, is low on the waiting list. Aldea has contacts in the medical profession who can help, and Bulai is willing to contact the head of school studies (Gelu Colceag) to put in a good word for Eliza. And so it goes on, each man scratching the back of another to earn favours and beat the system.
Aldea is fanatical about wanting his daughter to get out of the country he’s come to hate, and to make a life for herself in the West. He and Magda had, in fact, emigrated during the communist era, but had returned after the fall of Ceausescu in 1991, something he now deeply regrets. As for Eliza, she’s not so sure about leaving — maybe her generation will be able to help the troubled country make a new start.
Aldea can easily justify his actions — he’s a loving parent who only seeks a level playing field for his daughter, or so he tells himself. Unfortunately for him, one of the officials from whom he seeks a “favour” is already the subject of a police investigation.
Mungiu’s handling of this drama is exemplary. He digs below the surface of his characters, exposing their motives, their lies, their cheating. Everyone has an agenda, everyone is out for what they can get, whether they be men in positions of responsibility or “ordinary” citizens such as Sandra. This is the legacy of the dictatorship, along with the dreary, identical rows of buildings, the rundown streets and parks, the drab interiors. Visually the film impresses with its rather stylised photography, the work of Tudor Vladimir Panduru.
By shining a spotlight on the everyday corruption and dirty dealing, Mungiu enables us to understand just why his homeland is struggling to escape from the weight of the dictatorship that ruined it and betrayed its people for so many years.
HOW CLOSE TO THE TRUTH ALL THIS IS I CAN’T SAY, BUT IT MAKES FOR SOME POWERFUL DRAMA
Brian Cox as Winston Churchill; below, Adrian Titieni and Lia Bugnar in Graduation