Our rating: 3 out of 5
reviewed by Charity Bishop
He was one of the greatest men of his generation. He has been quoted numerous times and his speeches are legendary. His name was Winston Churchill, and he brought England through the greatest war Europe had ever seen...
With Germany increasing its borders and intending to invade France, the British government is in disarray and it is believed that for the good of all involved, the Prime Minister should resign and allow a new Parliament to be formed. Winston Churchill (Brendan Gleeson) is his second choice for the role of Prime Minister, but in his usual gruff tone, Churchill agrees that he is the best man for the job. Appointing himself also to a secondary position as Secretary of Defense, Churchill navigates the difficult political maneuvers of impending war. Within months, Germany has taken over most of France and threatens to bomb London. Bolstered with the steady hand and constant support of his wife Clementine (Janet McTeer), Churchill barks his way through military meetings, speaks with impassioned young air men on the front lines, and encourages his constituents to have faith and "keep buggaring on" in the face of imminent disaster.
Running parallel to the struggles and triumphs of the war is a depiction of his life in later years as he faced potential upheaval in the wake of success in defeating Germany. His relationship with his wife, his servants, his secretary, and King George VI (Ian Glen) is explored as he and the audience await the results of the elections. Though the film seems to waver a bit in the first ten or so minutes, once we become accustomed to the actors and the performances it becomes quite riveting and is full of magnificent information about an iconic figure from British history. Gleeson is following in the footsteps of Albert Finney, who undertook the demanding role in an earlier production, but soon steps out of his predecessor's shadow and forms a man who is gruff but likable, temperamental and grouchy but also has a superb sense of humor and whose quiet musings can often bring a tender smile or even a tug at our heartstrings. His better moments are contemplating the vast cost of the war upon the young people or when he confesses to feeling humbled in the presence of an injured soldier. His supporting cast is quite good but standing out in the midst of them all is Janet McTeer as his long-suffering wife, with whom he shares a loving but at times tempestuous relationship. Hers is an elegant and dutiful depiction that made me aware of the strengths and trials of her as an individual -- indeed, she steals scenes from him.
There is some dispute among amateur historians over whether or not the film is harsh in its characterizations but it felt to me a most respectful reflection a man who was known for his at times outrageous behavior. It is also apparent in the featurette that the cast have tremendous respect for him as an individual and do not take their roles lightly, something that is reflected in their studious approach to the source material. It's fun to see different figures step out of time in the form of President Franklin D. Roosevelt or Joseph Stalin. The film assumes we have some knowledge of history and might be difficult to follow for those who do not know the basic concept of the war and where it was fought, but for anyone familiar with the battles and the air raids on London, it's a harrowing and at the same time moving trip through time. Unfortunately, it is not completely without its faults, coming in the form of a great deal of vulgarities (most of it is kept to British slang such as "bloody" and "buggar," but there are two muffled f-words as well as numerous mild abuses of deity -- "Good Lord," etc). One unfortunate scene also gives us a secondary glance at Churchill's bare backside when he accidentally drops his towel after a bath -- flashing the startled Roosevelt. Churchill quickly makes a joke of it.
The inclusion of the f-words and even such a brief shot of nudity (we also see part of his bare side) is unfortunate since it would work well as a documentary-type film and contains a great deal of useful history. I'm fascinated with wartime Europe and so for me it was a delightful experience. There is something magnificent in a movie that honors the immense courage and struggle of the British while at the same time not undermining the role America ultimately undertook in assisting them in defeating Germany. Two of the more revealing and significant scenes are as such: when Churchill learns that Pearl Harbor has been bombed and expresses first his sorrow at the loss and then his relief, for now the enemy will be defeated -- and at the end, when citizens applaud a flushed and pleased former Prime Minister as the man who brought them through a terrible period in history. If you can manage to get through the last few minutes without a lump in your throat, you are of stronger stuff than I.