Albert Finney, Richard Burton, Bob Hoskins, Timothy Spall, Peter Sellers, Ian McNeice — these are just a few of the actors who have played Sir Winston Leonard Spencer-Churchill on film and television. Two upcoming feature films will add Gary Oldman and Brian Cox to that formidable list, but it is difficult to imagine any of them topping the ragged wonder of Michael Gambon’s performance in “Churchill’s Secret,” which airs Sunday night on PBS’ “Masterpiece.”
Seriously, “Michael Gambon as Winston Churchill” all but precludes a review — of course he’s great, he’s always great — but here we are. And before we go any further, let’s dispense with the unfortunate title. The film is based on a novel but the “secret” isn’t some salacious, sensational or deeply private revelation or speculation. No one is rooting through Churchill’s underwear drawer, thank heavens.
Instead, it refers to the major stroke the great man suffered in 1953 during his second term as Britain’s prime minister.
So not a secret, except at the time.
As inevitably the case when a world leader physically falters, the event was kept from the British citizenry and the world. Churchill was taken to his family home in Kent where his family, doctor and a small number of advisors waited to see first if he would survive, and then if he would be able to remain prime minister.
This small and finely wrought film is about that time.
Opening with the fateful night during which the still remarkable orator (Gambon) begins fumbling for words during a dinner at Downing Street, “Churchill’s Secret” immediately introduces the other larger not-secret secret of Churchill’s life: The national monument and international icon, the voice that miraculously rallied a small island nation when there was absolutely no good reason to believe it too would not succumb to German invasion, was also just a man.
Subject, obviously, to physical ailment (this isn’t his first stroke), but more thematically important, also to the inevitable tension between work and family, duty and arrogance, ambition and love.
Indeed, we see Clementine Churchill (Lindsay Duncan) and their youngest daughter, Mary (Daisy Lewis), before we see Churchill himself. Having already made some last-minute seating adjustments, Clemmie is the first to notice her husband’s stutter and, when he recovers to end his speech, it is she who quickly takes control. Graciously yet firmly, she clears the room and quietly issues the necessary orders — call the doctor, shut the door, clear the house, don’t let the servants in — before she can say what she really wants to say: “Just hold my hand, Winston, just hold my hand.”
It’s a small and fleet scene, a preface really, but in it Duncan lends Clementine such an astonishing mix of love, fear, control and weary nerve that it creates a portrait of a marriage in a matter of moments.
Meanwhile, elsewhere in London, another strong woman stirs. Millie Appleyard (Romola Garai) is a nurse so kind and skillful that other nurses come to her for advice. It is only a matter of time, then, before she is pulled into the tense and silent group assembling at Chartwell, the Churchill estate.
As the family gathers, the very real possibility of Churchill’s death forces all manner of bitter and heated encounters. The eldest children, Randolph (Matthew Macfadyen) and Diana (Tara Fitzgerald), become openly contemptuous of what they consider their father’s lifelong narcissism and their mother’s willingness to nurse it.
The histrionics of one dinner table rise to a pitch that borders on manipulative — even fathers who were not prime minister during a world war put work over family at the time just as many mothers, particularly of the Churchills’ class, put the needs of their husbands above their children — but Clemmie manages to ground the scene enough for it to make its point.
As Churchill’s doctor Lord Moran (the always fine Bill Paterson) reminds her, the cost of greatness is high and usually not paid by the great themselves.
Which, intentionally or not, the film itself goes on to prove: From the moment Gambon’s Churchill shows signs of (spoiler!) life, it is difficult to care about anything else.
Fighting against his own wayward flesh, the great orator must learn how to form simple words, the world leader must regain the strength to stand while those around him push and pull. One part of the Conservative Party wants him to stay in power, another hopes to force his retirement, and Clementine vacillates in between; obviously she wants her husband well, but she would also like him home. Finally. “He has done enough,” she says repeatedly.
Only nurse Appleyard, free from any emotional or even political baggage (she voted for “the other guy”), treats his recovery as simply that — a man struggling against diminishment. With his drooping face and bleary eyes, Churchill is clearly aware of all that roils around, and within, him but Gambon finds the small, essential flame of his spirit and blows it into a beacon.
The presence of Appleyard allows both Churchills to open up in scenes of powerful emotion as yet another non-secret secret is revealed, and Duncan’s Clemmie is a masterpiece of conflict and surrender. “We would not be here without him, and he would not be here without you,” Lord Moran says, and we believe him. But Duncan also lets us see how little daily sustenance that knowledge brings.
Because then Churchill sits up, or rolls in, or struggles to speak and we have eyes for no one else.
‘Masterpiece Classic: Churchill’s Secret’
When: 8 p.m. Sunday
Rating: TV-PG (may be unsuitable for young children)