Biographical stories, while compelling in nature, inherently lack one of the specific qualities that makes film narratives attractive to audiences — suspense. Intrinsically, stories true to reality automatically possess a built-in character arc and narrative structure that makes rendering them on screen natural. Audiences familiar with events and figures popular in history are already attuned to the trajectory of the story and its ending, requiring that their interest be captured in a different way. That’s where the details come in: the nitty-gritty of telling a story, a new perspective.
“Churchill’s Secret,” which aired Sunday night as part of PBS’s “Masterpiece” series, concerns itself with just that — every painful, tense moment following the stroke suffered by British prime minister Winston Churchill in 1953. Based on the novel “The Churchill Secret: KBO” by Jonathan Smith, the television drama addresses a lesser-known event in the PM’s life, kept secret from the world — delving into what made Churchill the leader and man that he was.
From the moment Churchill (Michael Gambon, the “Harry Potter” series) stutters mid-sentence while hosting a group of prominent guests, including the Italian prime minister, it’s apparent that something’s not right. The look of panic on his face, cross-cut with his wife’s strained composure, indicates the tense scenes to follow. The stroke, which incapacitated Churchill, was kept secret in an effort to help the bedridden PM return to power once recovered. His determination to make his last achievement as PM “one of peace” before retiring, against the evident wishes of Lady Churchill (Lindsay Duncan, “Birdman”) and pressure from government party officials, is executed poignantly by Gambon. Aside from Gambon’s stellar performance as an aging PM, still full of life and love for his country and his mission as its leader, Duncan’s Clementine Churchill meets Gambon with equal emotional prowess.
Clementine fulfills her role as dutiful wife to Churchill, while also providing the audience with insight into the more sentimental wounds inflicted by her husband’s career. Though the primary source of the film’s conflict is Churchill’s stroke, it awakens a host of unborn animosity within his family. Churchill must deal with old family strife, now instilled with fresh life by the concentrated efforts to rehabilitate him, while continuing to exert all his efforts into his career. Old wounds opened under new circumstances are poignantly portrayed by the film’s outstanding cast and conveyed through subtle cues in the movie’s execution. At one point, the tension erupts at a dinner scene between Clementine and her children, who unburden themselves of years of emotional pain inflicted by their father’s demanding career. And suddenly, Clementine is transformed from the loyal wife to an obsessive, overly solicitous shell of a mother whose devotion to her husband cost, her her relationships with her children.
Though a poignant and extremely taxing scene, the argument over dinner feels like an ambitious culmination of processing years of complex emotions in one scene — and an early emotional climax at that. Just halfway through the film, the family’s discord is revealed almost all at once, with little closure following the scene.
The second half of the film focuses on Churchill’s recovery, facilitated by his nurse Millie Appleyard (Romola Garai, “The Last Days on Mars”). Though her strength in character in caring for Churchill as if he were any other patient shows throughout the movie, Millie’s own character arc is given sporadic acknowledgement. Through Clementine’s prodding, the movie reveals little spurts of information about Millie that don’t tell us much about her at all. It’s her dedication to Churchill’s recovery and composure in the face of the conflict surrounding her that makes her an appealing, albeit somewhat flat, character.
Equally as static is the execution of the film. Though the camerawork and editing waste no time in telling the story, the film leaves little room for variation or discord that could have energized the otherwise somber piece. The seamless pans and cuts smoothly transition us from one scene to the next, mirroring the contained efficiency of Churchill’s recovery and the story itself.
However, close-ups reveal Churchill’s struggle. After he is rushed to his country home to receive care, Churchill’s condition takes a turn for the worse. When they finally arrive at the estate and Churchill’s helped out of the car, the camera cuts to a close perspective of his foot dragging behind him up the stairs of his home. In this simple shot, the PM’s helplessness is underscored — quickly and effectively conveying the significance of his illness. Moments like these draw the audience deeper into the story with subtlety and emotion.
These minutiae, interspersed throughout a story full of earnest emotion, make this “Masterpiece” drama a truly compelling film. “Churchill’s Secret” provides us a window into the inner life of one of the most powerful and skilled leaders in our history without much redundant effort. The simplicity of the telling of the story, combined with the adept work of its actors, provides an intriguing look into a great man’s life.