ArtsATL > Film > Review: “Churchill” and “I, Daniel Blake” are flawed but fascinating character studies from Britain

Review: “Churchill” and “I, Daniel Blake” are flawed but fascinating character studies from Britain

Brian Cox as Britain's leader during World War II in Churchill.

For actors of a certain age, Winston Churchill is the big-screen equivalent of theater’s King Lear. He’s a real-life, larger-than-life world leader that male performers just love to portray.

Albert Finney brandished the famous cigar in HBO’s The Gathering Storm, and in Netflix’s limited series The Crown last year, American John Lithgow was tremendous in the part. Later this year, Gary Oldman slaps on the belly and jowels in Darkest Hour, directed by Joe Wright (Atonement, Pride & Prejudice). Until then, we have Brian Cox, the original Hannibal Lecter (spelled “Lecktor” in Michael Mann’s Manhunter) in the tick-tock drama Churchill, focusing on the four days leading up to the Allied invasion of Normandy.

Though Churchill has a revered reputation, anyone who saw the recent drama A United Kingdom knows he didn’t always come down on the right side of history. The new movie reminds us that, for the most part, he did — but sometimes just barely.

Directed by Jonathan Teplitzky, Churchill shows us a prime minister blundering bull-like through a fug of nerves, nicotine and much too much scotch, which he pours at breakfast. It’s June 1944, and memories of his own time fighting in the trenches in World War I have stirred a kind of delayed PTSD. He’s certain that thousands of American and British soldiers are doomed to be killed in Operation Overlord.

That’s the code name of D-Day in Normandy, scheduled in the next few days, depending on tides and weather. But not if Winston can help it. “The invasion of France is a deadly gamble and must be stopped,” he rages.

Imagine his surprise and disbelief when he’s told, “No, sir, you must be stopped.”

That’s the opinion of Gen. Dwight Eisenhower (John Slattery), who is planning the Allies’ invasion of the French coastline, along with stuttery King George (James Purefoy) and South African prime minister Jan Smuts (Richard Durden). They’re all appalled by the prime minister’s resistance to their military plan. But they have to try to keep Churchill on their side.

With his peculiar mix of childlike bluster and sudden steeliness, the film’s Churchill is a lion in decline. Those around him alternately have to coddle and speak truth to him. The most effective in his entourage is his wife Clementine (Miranda Richardson), an English rose with thorns — and balls, when necessary. (Clementine, like Winston, is also a catnip role for top actors: Vanessa Redgrave and Harriet Walter have played her, and Kristin Scott Thomas takes the part opposite Oldman in the upcoming film.)

An interesting historical footnote (personally, I was unaware of this near-crisis on the eve of D-Day), Churchill is perfectly watchable. Cox, as usual, is terrific, and Richardson is seen too rarely these days. But the bulk of director Teplitzky’s career has been in UK television. There’s something correspondingly small-scale about his movie. Alex von Tunzelmann’s script also throws in some creaky bits. “Who will I be, when it’s all over — what will I be if we’re no longer fighting?” wonders Churchill, aloud, a manufactured dark-moment-of-the-soul that seems unlikely, regardless of the man’s known battle with the “black dog” of depression.

Another UK film opens on June 9, trailing awards. With his latest, I, Daniel Blake, veteran director Ken Loach continues to do what he’s done all his life: make small-scale but powerful agitprop films, centered on the kind of everyday, working-class people who don’t usually get much attention on the big screen.

Winner of the 2016 Cannes Film Festival top prize, the Palme d’Or, I, Daniel Blake centers on the title character (Dave Johns), a Newcastle carpenter recovering from a recent heart attack. He’d like more than anything to get back to work. His personal doctor, though, says he’s not fit yet for a job. But a physician working remotely through the social services that oversee Daniel’s case says he’s perfectly fine. And if he doesn’t seek work, Daniel won’t receive his disability check.

I’m probably getting some of this wrong. The British health-care system is vastly different from ours, but it seems to share a similar tangle of red tape and paperwork — part Kafka, part Catch-22.

At one of many frustrating visits to the social services office, Daniel stands up for a young single mother named Katie (Hayley Squires). Newly arrived from London, trying to get her bearings, she’s missed her appointment by a few minutes and been bumped off the schedule. When Daniel raises his voice to ask if the next scheduled client will give her his appointment slot, he only manages to get himself and Katie kicked out, along with her kids, Dylan and Daisy.

The plus side is Daniel soon becomes a sort of surrogate granddad for the young family, mending things around their council flat. The rest of his days are filled with trying to figure out how to use a computer to create a resume and going door-to-door, looking for work that he’s not well enough to undertake.

I, Daniel Blake is not the most subtle of Ken Loach’s films. Some of the indignities Daniel and Katie endure at the hands of the system are familiar, even predictable. That’s maybe more an indictment of a system that can’t solve its long-term problems than it is a fault of the film. One thing I think is a true weakness: Daniel, as a character, is a little too nice, a plaster saint. I prefer more prickly, messed-up fellows, like the one Peter Mullan played in Loach’s 1998 My Name Is Joe. (Or, for that matter, the damaged but sympathetic men Mullan has played in a number of other films.)

Oh, one other problem with the movie? Like a lot of dialect-heavy, northern-England (or Scottish, or Irish) films, this one could benefit from subtitles.

Still, the simple moments of human kindness and endurance in I, Daniel Blake can be deeply moving. There’s one scene, involving Katie at a food bank, that’s overwhelmingly primal and pitiable. I’ll probably remember it as if I witnessed it in person. It’s in moments like those that director Loach demonstrates why his quiet, integrity-filled career has also been such a long and admired one.

Churchill. With Brian Cox, Miranda Richardson, John Slattery. Directed by Jonathan Teplitzky. Rated PG. 98 minutes. At Regal Tara, AMC Barrett Commons, Regal Arbor Place.

I, Daniel Blake. With Dave Johns, Hayley Squires. Directed by Ken Loach. Rated R. 100 minutes. Starts June 9 at Landmark Midtown Art Cinema.

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