Doubts on eve of D-Day

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Film Reviews -

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

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