Jonathan Teplitzky, 98 mins, starring: Brian Cox, Miranda Richardson, John Slattery, Ella Purnell
The Winston Churchill in Jonathan Teplitzky’s new film is not at all the British bulldog that you might expect. As portrayed by Brian Cox, he is “a clapped out, moth-eaten old lion” who struggles to get out of bed before noon, yells at his secretaries, and is prey to extreme melancholy.
The film, which is set in June 1944 on the eve of D-Day, is a chamber piece. There may be talk of the hundreds off thousands of soldiers involved in “Operation Overlord”; of the V bombs that the Nazis are planning to unleash on London and the carnage of the First World War, but the drama here is played out in sitting rooms, bedrooms and underground offices.
The furthest afield Churchill gets is to the beach or to a forest where he goes to inspect a very small troop of General Montgomery’s soldiers. The real drama plays out on the contours of Cox’s jowly and very expressive face – of which there is close up after close up. Cox gives a fascinating performance even if the film itself is on the lugubrious side.
Much of Churchill was shot in Scotland. Disconcertingly, at one stage we catch a glimpse of what appears to be the Bass Rock in the Firth of Forth. Anyone who recognises the Scottish landscapes may come away with the impression that the British Prime Minister spent a good part of the war years in rural East Lothian.
Historian Alex von Tunzelmann’s screenplay very deliberately foregrounds the Gallipoli landings of 1915 and Churchill’s continuing guilt about his part in events in which so many young Australian and New Zealand soldiers died. The very first images of the film show him walking alone on the sand.
We see his famous hat bobbing in the waves which suddenly turn red as he remembers the bloodshed he helped unleash 30 years before. Gallipoli, the screenplay contends, is still tugging at his conscience.
He is terrified that the D-Day landings will result in similar if not greater slaughter and he tries to persuade General Eisenhower (Mad Men’s John Slattery) to abort the mission. Eisenhower dismisses him politely but firmly.
There are elements of both King Lear and of Colonel Blimp about Cox’s Churchill. Like Blimp, he’s a man out of time, accused of trying to fight a modern war with a mindset stuck years in the past. Like Lear, he is an old man, raging against the elements. He wants storms because bad weather may force the abandonment of D-Day.
He drinks too much. He is (it is implied) impotent. “I haven’t been much of a companion to you,” he says in a confessional moment to his wife, the the long-suffering Clemmie (Miranda Richardson). At one stage we see him lying on his bed, too depressed to work on the speech he is due to deliver on the day of the invasion.
His old friend General Smuts (Richard Durden) acts as his minder, trying to stop him from making a fool of himself. One of the most poignant images in the film is of kids with wooden rifles spotting him in the back of a car and making his famous “V For Victory” sign at him. We see him in slow motion raising his own fingers in a “V” but this is at a moment when he seems utterly defeated.
Cox is such a powerful actor that he is able to make Churchill seem intimidating one moment and a little lost and pathetic the next. We see him roar at his secretary Miss Garnett (Ella Purnell) when she makes a mistake on a letter she is typing for him. There are huge reserves of anger in him but he is also very vulnerable, limping along with his cane, and is capable of great tact and delicacy.
It goes without saying that Churchill was a brilliant orator. As in The King’s Speech, the movie builds up to an address to the nation the main character needs to deliver during the final reel. Cox captures his intonation, his perfectionism (the way he fusses over the right phrase or word), his flair for telling metaphors, his slight hamminess, the way he holds his cigar almost as if it’s a baby’s dummy, his dressing rituals (he wears zip-up shoes for ease and comfort) and his prodigious drinking.
As a character study, the film is intriguing but as a piece of storytelling it is flat and a little repetitive. Churchill wrestles with his conscience, remonstrates with Eisenhower and Montgomery, and comes up with a far fetched scheme to embark on the D-Day invasion himself, alongside King George VI (James Purefoy.) Beyond this, not a great deal happens. There is a great deal of talking.
The climactic events are taking place off screen. We don’t see any violence or bloodshed other than the harrowing imagery of Gallipoli in a dream-like sequence as Churchill walks the beach. The film is so much about him that the supporting characters are given very limited screen time.
Miranda Richardson plays Clemmie as a brisk and sensible figure, who follows behind her husband, soothing those he has offended. She hints at Clemmie’s frustrations with Winston as well as her devotion to him. It’s a lively enough performance but she, like everyone else in the movie, is there as a foil to the main man.
To their credit, the filmmakers go beyond stock images of the machine gun wielding British bulldog in the homburg hat. They show his weaknesses as well as his strengths. The problem is that they don’t really have a story to tell.
Marc Webb, 101 mins, starring: Chris Evans, McKenna Grace, Lindsay Duncan, Jenny Slate, Octavia Spencer
“No-one likes a smart ass,” the seven-year-old maths genius Mary (McKenna Grace) explains at one stage in Gifted when asked why she hasn’t corrected a mistake made by an “older” person. In fact, what makes this film so likeable and so much easier to stomach than the typical yarn about a dimple-chinned child prodigy is precisely its smart-ass quality.
Mary may look like Shirley Temple but she has a very nice line in sarcastic humour. This is inherited from her uncle and guardian Frank (Chris Evans), who is bringing her up in very modest circumstances in a coastal Florida town and is determined that she leads as “ordinary” and down to earth a life as possible.
Plot wise, Gifted is as easy to predict as the arithmetic questions from Mary’s first grade teacher Miss Stevenson (Jenny Slate) are to answer. We can tell just when the romance between Frank and the teacher will kick in. Frank’s greatest fear is that his laidback approach to parenting will destroy Mary’s life – but there is never any danger of that.
As Frank, Evans may not have the superhero powers he wields when playing Captain America. Instead of killing baddies, he’s serving up bowls of Special K and going on the school run but he’s still the same craggy, dependable presence.
The villain is the grandmother, Evelyn (Lindsay Duncan). She’s described before we see her on screen as being exacting and “very British” – which is another way of saying she’s haughty, stuck up and generally Cruella de Vil-like.
She is a brilliant academic whose even more brilliant daughter Diane (Mary’s mum) committed suicide just when she was on the verge of solving the “Navier-Stokes” problem – apparently a holy grail for mathematicians.
Now, she wants to get her claws into little Mary, put her in a hothouse academic environment and push her to out-perform her mother. To do this, she has to win custody of Mary first. Cue the inevitable court case against Frank, whom she despises. Although he was once a philosophy professor, he is now making a living as a freelance boat repairer. He is suntanned, bearded and, according to the waspish Evelyn, looks just like a “porn producer”.
Gifted is dealing with some very rancorous family business but its tone is surprisingly upbeat. Tom Flynn’s screenplay spreads around the witty and sardonic one-liners in very democratic fashion.
Little Mary gets some of the best ones. “Good morning, Miss Stevenson,” she is told to say to her teacher at the beginning of every class. When the teacher ends up in her uncle’s bed and Mary spots her coming out of the bathroom early on a Saturday morning, she repeats the line again, ensuring maximum embarrassment for Miss Stevenson.
Fresh from playing God in The Shack, Octavia Spencer has another role here as an all-knowing earth mother type. She plays Frank’s next door neighbour and landlady Roberta, even more devoted to Mary than she is and who has the little girl over for karaoke-singing sleepovers. When it comes to scene-stealing antics, it’s a close run between Spencer and Mary’s one-eyed tabby cat, Fred, as to who is the most effective.
Mary is very precocious. Her idea of small talk is to discuss what might happen to the global economy if Germany bails out the Euro. Frank has homeschooled her so far and when she first attends the local school, she is bored and dismayed at the low level of the other kids.
She is far too bright to be there. Nonetheless, Frank is fighting for Little Miss Einstein to be allowed to stay in the school. Her intelligence isn’t just a gift, it’s potentially a curse. Frank seems to want to suppress it whereas Evelyn is the tiger grandma who’ll push the girl to the limits.
She gets the most portentous lines in the film as she justifies her behaviour toward her daughter: “the greatest discoveries which have proved life on this planet have come from minds rarer than radium. Without them, we’d still be crawling in the mud.”
Like one of those equations that can’t be solved because they’re formulated wrong, the film is a bit of a fudge. Director Marc Webb wants both to celebrate Mary’s genius and to downplay it. Her mind may indeed be “rarer than radium” but that (the film argues) doesn’t mean she shouldn’t be allowed to watch SpongeBob SquarePants.
This is a benign and good natured film. Even at the most oppressive moments, there will always be a wisecrack. The smart ass humour here is crucial. Without it, the film would have risked seeming too dry and too maudlin by turns.
Destination Unknown (12A)
Claire Ferguson, 81 mins, featuring: Helen Sternlicht, Mietek Pemper
On the face of it, Claire Ferguson’s documentary appears to be covering familiar territory. She is telling the stories of twelve Holocaust survivors. On camera, they recount their horrific experiences in places like Treblinka, Mauthausen and Auschwitz-Birkenau and their often miraculous tales of survival.
Alongside the interviews, Ferguson combines archive material with lyrical imagery of birds, barbed wire and railroad tracks. Some of the names mentioned here are very familiar. The survivors include one or two (Helen Sternlicht and Mietek Pemper) who knew Oskar Schindler and who came across the horribly sadistic Nazi camp commandant, Amon Göth.
There are familiar musings about the nature of good and evil as the survivors reflect on the behaviour of those who persecuted them and those who intervened at great risk on their behalf.
What gives Destination Unknown its power is the focus on the trauma endured by the survivors. As they point out again and again, they have continued to suffer. “While you are in it, you can’t think about it – you just try to survive,” one says of the actual wartime experience.
It was only after liberation that they experienced guilt and bereavement. Even 70 years later, their anger and despair is still obvious. Some see their revenge against Hitler in their own survival and in the faces of their children and grandchildren.
Others still ask, in heartbreaking fashion, who was better off: the ones who died early as a result of the Nazi genocide or the ones who survived but remained in torment that they had done so.
Stockholm, My Love (PG)
Mark Cousins, 88 mins, featuring: Neneh Cherry
The latest of Mark Cousins’ city symphonies follows Alva (singer Neneh Cherry) on an impressionistic journey around Stockholm. We hear her voiceover as she walks along streets, takes the subway, stands under bridges, goes on fairground rides and generally rambles around. She’s an architect, due to give a lecture to an invited audience but for some reason, is very reluctant to do so.
Her commentary is addressed to her father. She slips between English and Swedish. Some of her observations are on the banal side. We see oranges bouncing on the sidewalk. She talks about the assassination of the Swedish prime minister Olaf Palmé in 1986 – and we see grisly archive footage of his blood on the pavements.
This prompts her reflections on hitting a deer while driving a car. All the while, we hear murmurings and rumblings, sombre classical music and some songs from Cherry too on the soundtrack.
Cherry has a certain magnetism as she crisscrosses the city like one of those ghostly, angelic figures in a Wim Wenders movie like Wings Of Desire. Wherever she goes, the streets are strangely empty.
She delivers the voiceover in a lilting, melancholy fashion. The film was shot by Chris Doyle, famous for his work with Wong Kar-wai and his astonishing cinematography on Zhang Yimou’s Hero. This, though, is Doyle in restrained groove, shooting in observational, verité style as he follows Cherry across the city.
There are plenty of striking moments but the film doesn’t have the historical sweep or intensely personal feel of Cousins’ I Am Belfast. At times, it feels like an upmarket municipal tourist video, shot in the style of Chris Marker or Patrick Keiller. It’s a soothing experience, though, and one that certainly highlights the beauty of the city it is showcasing.
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