Tuesday, July 2, 2013

Young Winston (1972)

          It’s appropriate that the longest sequence in Young Winston takes place during the Boer War, because the movie is a bore. Restrained and respectful in the extreme, this adaptation of a memoir by the revered UK wartime leader Winston Churchill sprawls across 157 lugubrious minutes. Written for the screen and produced by the great Carl Foreman, with Richard Attenborough handling the direction, the film boasts impressive production values but an overly sterile narrative style.
          The most interesting thread of the movie relates to future politician Winston's fraught relationship with his father, forceful Member of Parliament Lord Randolph Churchill (Robert Shaw). During childhood, Winston struggles to earn his aloof father's attention, and during adulthood, Winston seeks revenge against the political establishment that bested his father. This is rich stuff, but Foreman and Attenborough approach the intense family material with the stuffiness of textbook authors. Another thread of the picture involves Winston's relationship with his American-born mother, Lady Churchill (Anne Bancroft). She represents an interesting collision between aggressive and passive impulses, but her complexities remain largely unexplored. The third and final major thread of the story—which gets the most screen time--involves Winston's military career. Alas, the filmmakers can't decide where they stand on Winston's conduct as an officer. Is he a hero willing to risk all for his country and himself (two entities he considers inextricably linked), or is he the glory-hound his detractors criticize him for being? Like so many questions that are raised by Young Winston, this one goes unanswered.
          Foreman integrated many of Churchill's own musings into the script, and those remarks are read in voiceover by star Simon Ward, performing a cartoonish impression of the real Churchill's distinctive speech pattern. Attenborough, who later found his groove as a director of critic-proof dramas about saintly characters—notably Gandhi (1982)—delivers acceptable work during the picture's big-canvas scenes, such as those depicting Winston's battlefield exploits circa the late 19th century and early 20th century. (It helps that the filmmaker shamelessly copies David Lean’s pictorial techniques.) Attenborough's filmmaking doesn't fare as well during close-quarters sequences. For instance, he relies on an ineffective device of filming just one side of long interview scenes while an unseen journalist peppers the interview subject with questions. These scenes drag on forever.
          Not all of Young Winston’s shortcomings should be blamed on Attenborough, however. Leading man Ward (who plays Winston as a young adult) lacks charisma and dynamism, which short-circuits the whole enterprise, and Foreman’s script features excruciating detail about the internecine processes of British government. (Even the long Boer War sequence, which portrays Winston's capture by enemy forces and subsequent daring escape, gets bogged down with narration explaining the political significance of Winston’s situation.) Unsurprisingly, Shaw gives the closest thing the picture has to a full-blooded performance. His appearance climaxes with a poignant scene of Lord Churchill succumbing to mental decay in the midst of a speech. But if the best scene in a two-and-a-half-hour biopic doesn't revolve around the protagonist, that’s a problem.

Young Winston: FUNKY

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