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Churchill’s Secret (PBS/DVD/2016)

As docu-dramas go, this true story of how the staff supporting the British Prime Minister Winston Churchill just after his successful re-election, and
after his successful run as a savior of Great Britain during WWII, was felled by a major stoke in 1953 and how extraordinarily secret it was kept.

Starring the notably talented Michael Gambon and Lindsey Duncan as his steadfast and exasperated wife, Clementine (Clemmie) Churchill, this small bit of British history is well-made, showing us the inner-sanctum life of this important man-of-history. 

After his stroke at an important dinner at 10 Downing Street, he is taken to his un-official residence in the countryside, Chartwell.  The spin on his illness is that he’s suffering from exhaustion and the press of the day willingly goes along with the deception.  The backstory on all this is that the next in line to take over if he dies is Sir Anthony Eden, the Foreign Secretary, who is just recuperating from a serious operation.

Sir Winston’s family comes in a hurry:  Randolph, his early-40s son (Matthew Macfadyen) an angry alcoholic, Sarah (Rachel Sterling), a failed actress, stately Diana (Tara Fitzgerald), and Mary (Daisy Lewis), the sensible one, siblings who bicker and act-out selfishly.  Riding herd on them is Clemmy, while Nurse Millie (Romola Garai) does what she can to protect the PM’s fragile health from their nonsense.

In a more intimate moment, Clemmie talks about the death of their infant daughter many years before, something neither of them had ever discussed with each other, let alone with the dead baby’s siblings.

The script by Jonathan Smith, based on a novel by Stewart Harcourt, is tight, with a fine balance between what is at stake for the British government and the love of his family, a love not always given back by the extraordinary and ultimately selfish great man.

As usual with such fare, the casting is impeccable, with Gambon, Duncan, Romola, the off-spring, and such stalwart character-actors such as Bill Patterson, Matthew Marsh, Alex Jennings (as a recovering Eden), James Wilby and the great John Standing as Lord Camrose.  It’s a weighty joy when you get to just sit back and watch the masters at work.

Director Charles Sturridge, a master at this kind of film, keeps it flowing, along with the excellent cinematography of Fabian Wagner.  It’s a minor film, but fascinating nonetheless as it fills us in on a small-but-important big of history.