Monday, September 12, 2016

Churchill's Secret (Daybreak Pictures/Masterpiece, 2016)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2016 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

I watched a special Masterpiece Theatre presentation of a two-hour historical drama called Churchill’s Secret. It seems that in 1953 Winston Churchill, then serving his second stint as Prime Minister of the United Kingdom (his first and far more famous one had begun in 1940 and ended abruptly in 1945 when, with World War II just about over, the British voters rejected his Conservative Party and voted Clement Attlee and the Labour Party into power; his second began when the Conservatives regained control in 1951 and lasted until he retired in 1955 and his Foreign Secretary, Anthony Eden, succeeded him; the Conservatives, or “Tories” as they’re usually called, stayed in power until Harold Wilson defeated Harold Macmillan in 1964), had an incapacitating stroke and was shipped off to his family’s estate at Chartwell. Churchill’s Secret was based on a novel by British writer The Churchill Secret — KBO by Jonathan Smith (“KBO” is short for “Keep Buggering On,” which was Churchill’s favorite expression; it meant keep going and fighting against all odds, though it seems odd that a country which so strongly and viciously prosecuted actual Gay people then would be led by someone whose favorite phrase was a metaphor from Gay sex) and most of the characters in it were real. One who wasn’t was the female lead, Millie Appleyard (Romola Garai), a nurse who’s on the point of relocating to Australia with the man she plans to marry when she gets assigned to be Churchill’s live-in caregiver at Chartwell. A post-film “Behind the Scenes” epilogue explains that Smith invented her and inserted her into the otherwise true story to give us a sense of perspective, though in some ways — as good as the writing of this character and Garai’s acting of her are — she’s way overshadowed by the real heroine of the film, Churchill’s long-suffering wife Clemmie (Lindsay Duncan). Clemmie had argued against Churchill seeking the prime ministership again in 1951 and had urged him to retire, but instead of being profuse with the I-told-you-so’s she makes clear that after over 50 years of marriage she’s by his side and will support him no matter what he decides to do.

Churchill’s stroke occurs when Anthony Eden, his designated successor (essentially his vice-president), is having health problems of his own; he’s in the U.S. recovering from emergency gall bladder surgery, and with both the top officials in the British government hors de combat Churchill is forced to postpone a big conference he was going to have with the U.S. in Bermuda aimed at ending the Cold War through mutually enforceable limitations on nuclear weapons. He had called this conference right after Joseph Stalin’s death in the hopes that whatever new leadership emerged in the Soviet Union would be more amenable to peace negotiations than Stalin had been. There’s an obvious poignancy in Churchill’s statement that he wants to hang on as Prime Minister “until the end of the Cold War” — the Cold War didn’t end until 1989, 34 years after Churchill left the prime ministership for good and 24 years after Churchill left the planet for good. There’s also a fascinating aspect in his determination, despite his great fame as a wartime leader, to make his last great accomplishment a peace deal between the superpowers — despite the predictable skepticism of his American counterpart, President Dwight Eisenhower, over whether the Russians can be trusted to cut and live up to an arms deal. Eisenhower isn’t an on-screen character but we see Churchill receiving a phone call of condolences from him; ironically, two years later Eisenhower suffered his own debilitating heart attack that precipitated a political crisis in his country. What’s most amazing about this show is how successful the British government, with its unwritten Constitution and well-written Official Secrets Act (under which Nurse Appleyard has to sign a permanent non-disclosure agreement before she can start work on Churchill’s care), was in keeping Churchill’s illness a secret then and for decades afterwards. The official explanation was that he was simply suffering from “exhaustion” and had gone to rest up for a few days at Chartwell.

If the true heroine of the story is Churchill’s wife, the villains are his kids Randolph (Matthew Macfadyen), Sarah (Rachael Stirling), Diana (Tara Fitzgerald), and Mary (Daisy Lewis), who come to Chartwell to see their dad (and Randolph in particular, the biggest asshole of the bunch, is convinced it will be the last time they ever see their dad) but bring all their old family squabbles and feuds, to the point where Nurse Appleyard complains that they’re yelling at each other so loudly Winston can hear them and this is not helping him get better! Sarah is mentioned as an actress whose film career was a failure — Randolph even directly insults her by saying she was in “two little films which no one saw” (actually she had a prestigious role opposite Fred Astaire in the 1951 musical Royal Wedding, and while Astaire wasn’t the blockbuster A-lister he’d been in the 1930’s when he and Ginger Rogers were among the biggest stars in the business, he was still a prestige performer and Royal Wedding was a box-office hit) — and the Churchill brood are depicted as so malevolent a bunch their mom and Nurse Appleyard literally have to chew them out and get them to behave. Winston Churchill is portrayed by Michael Gambon, who doesn’t look that much like the real one but pulls it off anyway despite an odd voice that seems made up of equal parts Churchill and Alfred Hitchcock (suggesting he’d have been a much better choice than Anthony Hopkins for the recent Hitchcock biopic), and overall Churchill’s Secret is an excellent example of that quiet sort of drama the British are so good at, making its points without underlining, given subtle and workmanlike direction by Charles Sturridge (the making-of bit at the end said they used the real exteriors of Chartwell but reconstructed the interiors as sets on soundstages) and, above all, the finely honed acting one almost always gets from British casts.