This appealing drama about Sir Winston Churchill (1874-1965) centers on a little known chapter in his fascinating and well-documented life. In June 1953, the great man, then Prime Minister at age 78, suffered a stroke. In a feat impossible today, his family and inner circle, with the collusion of the leading newspaper publishers, kept Parliament and the public in the dark about his condition. Thus, he recuperated in secret for four months at his country house, Chartwell.
Sir Anthony Eden, then Foreign Secretary and the heir presumptive, was at the time having major surgery in the United States, so that he could not assume Churchill’s duties. The government appears to have limped along just fine over that summer, with a major meeting with President Eisenhower having been postponed. Told more from the personal and familial standpoint, rather than that of a governmental crisis, “Churchill’s Secret” is a fictionalized version of his convalescence.
The incomparable Michael Gambon is wonderful as Churchill. Although some Americans may only know his work from his role as Hogwarts’s headmaster, Albus Dumbledore (beginning in the third installment of the “Harry Potter” films), Gambon has been a fixture in U.K. and U.S. theatre, film and television since the 1960s, including PBS’s “Emma” and “Cranford.” Although he doesn’t resemble his character closely, Gambon exudes a Churchillian personae, displaying a full range of emotions — except for self-pity.
The story is told from the viewpoint of a fictional character, young Yorkshire nurse Millie Appleyard (Romola Garai, “The Hour”), who is a stand-in for the many nurses who actually cared for Churchill that summer. With a firm hand, she guides, cajoles, challenges, and entertains the old man for whom she never voted. In a significant scene, they read William Ernest Henley’s affirmative poem, “Invictus” (“I am the master of my fate:/I am the captain of my soul.”).
In a minor false note at the end of the drama, however, Millie makes a personal life decision, presumably as a result of her experience with Churchill. Even though there is a bit of foreshadowing, the audience hasn’t been given enough information for this conclusion to ring true, nor for us to care much about it.
Churchill’s possessive wife, Clementine, (ably acted by an elegant-looking Lindsay Duncan, “Sherlock”), hopes that the stroke will force him to retire. She has played second fiddle to her husband’s political career for their entire marriage and longs to enjoy a period of retirement with him before he dies (the funeral plan that was first drafted in 1953 was entitled, “Operation Hope Not”).
The adult Churchill children, Randolph (Matthew Macfadyen), Mary (Daisy Lewis) Sarah (Rachael Stirling) and Diana (Tara Fitzgerald), have their own psychological issues, as unfortunately often befalls children of famous and gifted parents. Their alcohol-induced quarrels, selfishness and snobbishness are so well-acted that we dislike them immediately and with gusto.
“Churchill’s Secret,” is based on the novel by Jonathan Smith “The Churchill Secret – KBO,” with “KBO” standing for one of Churchill’s favorite pieces of advice, “”keep buggering on.” Not quite “Invictus,” but close enough. Smith’s novel, as well as the film, use an understandable bit of dramatic license, and exaggerates the seriousness of Churchill’s stroke. The publicity surrounding the film refers to the secret nature of Churchill’s illness, which was certainly true at the time. But in 1966, Lord Moran, Churchill’s primary physician, published his account of the years he doctored Churchill, complete with his patient’s 1953 stroke and clandestine recovery.
This is an entertaining production, rather than an in-depth psychological portrait of Churchill, although we see a brief glimpse of the sadness that touched the lives of Winston and Clemmie. Michael Gambon brilliantly plays Churchill, and the talented supporting cast excel in their roles. The production values are high, particularly the outdoor scenes that were shot at Chartwell. Charles Sturridge is a pro at direction (“Shackleton,” “Bridgehead Revisited”), and the two hours moves swiftly along. Tune in and enjoy.
Emily S. Mendel
©Emily S. Mendel 2016. All Rights Reserved.