“We shall not fail or falter. We shall not weaken or tire. Neither the sudden shock of battle nor the long-drawn trials of vigilance and exertion will wear us down. Give us the tools and we will finish the job.”
– Sir Winston Churchill
Quotes like the one above are among the many that define the iconic legacy of British Prime Minister Sir Winston Churchill. Decisive, unwavering, gruff, patriotic and a true leader in every conceivable way, the mythology of Churchill – the force who led the United Kingdom through two world wars; the indefatigable negotiator who forged a relationship with President Franklin Delano Roosevelt that would prove decisive in securing the freedom of Great Britain and the greater part of modern Europe from the tyranny of Nazi Germany; the powerful orator whose words were the balm for a nation’s fears and the inspiration for its unflappable resolve – looms more majestically with each passing year.
But behind every myth there lies a man.
The new film, Churchill, directed by Jonathan Teplitzky intimately explores the man rather than myth with a deft hand by focusing not on the totality of Churchill’s exalted rollercoaster of a political career but instead on the crucial days leading up to D-Day, that fateful and pivotal day in 1944 when Allied troops landed on the shores of France and not only changed the course of WWll but began to shape the world order as we know it today.
Characterized as the “untold story of Winston Churchill’s political and personal conflict” during this critical period, Churchill explores a rarely seen side of the myth. In a bravura performance, Brian Cox (Rise of the Planet of the Apes, Coriolanus), plumbs the depths of Winston Churchill’s doubts and fears, his bouts with depressive episodes and alcohol along with the tempering of his ego by time and circumstance and then reveals how all of the aforementioned affected the late Prime Minister’s inner circle and how that inner circle in turn propped up the occasionally cowed British lion in his darkest of hours.
One of the key players in Teplitzky’s examination of Churchill is Dwight D. Eisenhower, portrayed with brilliant subtlety by John Slattery (Mad Men, Spotlight, Flags of our Fathers). In the film, Eisenhower and Churchill are locked in a constant battle over war strategy and the deployment of troops, which is in itself a divergence from widely held legends about the latter. While Churchill is all bluster, swagger and full throttle rage, Slattery’s Ike Eisenhower is a cool, thoughtful, calculating presence manipulating events behind the scenes to achieve his desired result.
When, during a recent phone interview, I asked Slattery about his choice to play Eisenhower with such understatement, he initially joked, “I didn’t look like Ike, so I played him straight,” mischievously intimating that he suspected he only landed the role because someone else must have dropped out.
Turning more serious, however, Slattery revealed the actual rationale for his portrayal, which was at least in part rooted in his research about Dwight Eisenhower. “He was a diplomat,” Slattery explains simply. “And the script demanded it.”
The other key, and perhaps most profoundly intriguing, player in Churchill is Clementine Churchill, Winston Churchill’s wife and partner of more than six decades, portrayed with a powerful combination of verve, steely resolve and humanity by Miranda Richardson (Parade’s End, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 1, The Young Victoria). There were two women of particular import in Winston Churchill’s life – his American born mother, Jennie Jerome Churchill and his wife Clementine. While his mother raised him to be great, it was Clementine who was there by his side to sort every tempest in a teapot at which her husband was the root and also to act as a sort of moral weathervane on his path to greatness, which was at times rocky and fraught with pitfalls.
“Generally there was a volatility in this relationship,” Richardson explains of Churchill’s marriage to Clementine. “They had glittering rows. If Clemmie didn’t like something, she’d take herself off to her room. She would go rest. Her bedroom was her sanctuary and she would just lie there under the sheets. It didn’t matter the time of day. If she couldn’t stand someone at the dinner table she’d leave. I admire that about her.”
“[But] She also knew how to be very pragmatic with [Winston]…and bring him back down to earth,” Richardson continues. “She allowed him to be…she made it possible for him to be the person he became, to fulfill his destiny which she had a very strong sense of. She was his advisor and his helpmate.”
As to the glue that held the complicated relationship between the Prime Minister and his wife together through trying times, Richardson posits that their similar childhoods might have played a part. “Neither of them had the easiest of beginnings,” Richardson notes.
“Clementine was afraid of her mother from [the time she was] a tiny girl when she was called into the bedroom and saw her mother in her full splendor and for some reason she was just terrified of her. And Winston barely saw his mother and therefore chose to idealize her. That’s the way [Winston] coped with that – [his mother] wasn’t I would say the sunshine of his life but she was the guiding light in the back of his brain even though she had never been there. So [Clementine and Winston] found each other and they found so much in each other that they forged a relationship that lasted. It’s like two friends finding each other, as much as anything else, and I think maybe the friendship was the first thing that let them know they could be really good mates and the rest followed, like the best sort of arranged marriage in a way.”
“[And] they also had a great sense of humor,” Richardson adds with a laugh of her own. “You don’t get to see a great deal of that here [in this film] but it is undoubtedly true. In the pictures of Clemmie and he together, [Winston] usually has a twinkle in his eye and she’s either grinning or got her head thrown back laughing.”
At times intense, at times light-hearted and still at other times flurried with human emotion, Churchill offers a revelatory look behind the scenes of one of most important moments in modern history through the eyes of one of its central players. The film may not showcase the Winston Churchill we have come to know and love but, in its humanizing of the icon, it may just reveal more reasons for the reverence his legacy has earned over time.
Churchill opens in theaters on Friday, June 2, 2017.