20 March 2016 | l_rawjalaurence
Historically Unconvincing Costume Picture
Set in 1953, Charles Sturridge's drama concentrates on one of the major political secrets of the Fifties - the stroke experienced by Prime Minister Winston Churchill (Michael Gambon), the news of which was kept from the public sphere through the machinations of his private secretary Jock Colville (Patrick Kennedy) and the powerful media barons led by Max Aitken, aka Lord Beaverbrook (Matthew Marsh).
There is a good story to tell here about politics, and the concept of releasing information on a "need to know" basis, something beloved of Sir Humphrey Appleby and his fellow civil servants in YES MINISTER. Concepts of "truth" and the public interest really do not matter; so long as the wheels of government keep running in the way they have always done, then everyone is happy. It was one of the lessons of this incident that the Conservatives and their civil servants realized that they could govern without Churchill, or his deputy Sir Anthony Eden (Alex Jennings).
Unfortunately this production misses just about every opportunity to reflect on past history. Instead Sturridge transforms it into a soupy family melodrama with echoes of THE KING'S SPEECH. Gambon makes a fair stab at Churchill, even though he looks nothing like the Old Man; but Lindsay Duncan, as Clemmie, looks to be impersonating Vanessa Redgrave (who memorably played the same role in THE GATHERING STORM (2002)) rather than developing a performance of her own. Although she protests a lot about her love for Winston, she seems more preoccupied with keeping her errant offspring under control, led by Randolph (Matthew Macfadyen) and Diana (Tara Fitzgerald). None of them, it seems, are very happy with their lives, and take every opportunity to voice their discontents. In the end we feel rather sorry for the old boy, not just because of his desire to continue in power, but because he has to contend with such an appalling family.
Stewart Harcourt's script doesn't really know whether to sympathize with Churchill or to criticize him for his self-absorption. Great man he might have been; but he seems to have been neglectful of his family. In the end Harcourt abandons this issue and opts instead for the traditional happy ending where Churchill makes a great recovery from his illness and gives a speech to the party conference in Margate.
The script is full of anachronisms; and although Sturridge makes strenuous efforts to hold our interest by using heritage film conventions such as cutaway shots of old vehicles, interior scenes with orange lights focusing on the characters' faces, and exteriors of Chartwell (where much of the production as filmed), the drama as a whole fails to come to life.
If viewers want to find out more about Churchill's life from recent films, they would be better advised to dig out THE GATHERING STORM (2002) and its sequel INTO THE STORM (2009).