Film review of Sobibor

October 21, 2018

(This film review of “Sobibor” appeared in the Australian Jewish News on 18 October 2018, in a shortened form. It plays as part of the Jewish International Film Festival.)

The film “Sobibor” comes to the Festival carrying a lot more meaning than a big-budget story about a Nazi death camp., Located in eastern Poland, Sobibor (the camp) was one of the most deadly of the Nazi concentration camps, where 250,000+ Jews from Poland, Czechoslovakia, France, Holland, Germany and the Soviet Union – notably including Jewish-Soviet POWs – were murdered.

The film provides a fictionalised version of the Sobibor prisoner uprising, the most successful of concentration camp revolts (Auschwitz-Birkenau and Treblinka also had smaller, less successful uprisings). The 1987 British telemovie “Escape from Sobibor”, starring Alan Arkin and Rutger Hauer, previously portrayed these events. (Documentaries have also been made by Claude Lanzmann and Pavel Kogan.) This Russian version carries great meaning and is likely to be one of the most watched films of the Festival, as its director and star Konstantin Khabenskiy (“Night Watch”, “Admiral”) will be a JIFF guest.

The uprising was led by the Soviet-Jewish POW Aleksandr Pechersky (Khabenskiy), who organised the uprising in just three weeks, eventually including the majority of the 550 Sobibor prisoners. With few weapons, they killed a number of SS soldiers and Ukrainian guards. Of those who escaped, about 80 were killed during the revolt, 170 others found and killed later and many others turned over by local collaborators. Yet 53 managed to survive the war – including Pechersky.

“Sobibor” can be a tough film to watch and prospective viewers are forewarned. An early scene shows a large number of naked women herded into a gas chamber and gassed, with attendant screams and vomiting. As Cnaan Liphshiz writes for the Jewish Telegraphic Agency, “the film is one of the goriest of its kind, there’s a rape scene, immolation, savage beatings, floggings, stabbings, a bludgeoning to the head and firearm executions.”

Numerous Holocaust films have been set in the camps, notably including Oscar winners “Schindler’s List” and “Son of Saul”. While “Sobibor” doesn’t rise to the dramatic or artistic heights of these two, its large budget – much of it from Russian government sources – ensures that the action is realistic, although some of the details of Nazi camp procedures may be debated.

The film has already had unprecedented success in Russian cinemas, and is Russia’s official entry to the 91st Academy Awards. It also carries important contemporary political significance, as part of a Russian attempt to ensure that the Soviet Union’s role in European liberation is recognised. As Russia Today reports, the film “is a major step … to preserving historical truth … about the heroism of the Soviet people … who saved Europe and the whole world from fascism at the cost of many lives.” A recent screening of the film for Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu underscores how Russia has made the Sobibor revolt an important part of their national story.

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Film review of 7 Days in Entebbe

September 2, 2018

(This film review of “7 Days in Entebbe”, also called “Entebbe”, appeared in the Australian Jewish News on August 30, 2018.)

Directed by José Padilha; written by Gregory Burke; starring Rosamund Pike, Daniel Brühl, Eddie Marsan, Ben Schnetzer, Lior Ashkenazi and Denis Ménochet

The new film “Entebbe” (also entitled “7 Days in Entebbe”) – about the famed Israeli rescue of 248 hostages from a hijacked Air France airplane in Uganda in 1976 – released in Australia this week on DVD, Blu-Ray and selected streaming services. Four hijackers – two German and two Palestinian – took control of the plane after leaving Athens and demanded it refuel in Libya and fly to Uganda. There, with the support of Ugandan President Idi Amin, they attempted to negotiate the passengers for release of Palestinian prisoners held by Israel. Over the course of a week the Israelis organised a dramatic rescue, projecting their military power by sending 100 commandos an unprecedented 4,000 kilometres, deep into Africa. All but four passengers and one Israeli solder – Yonatan Netanyahu, older brother of current Prime Minister Bibi – survived the experience. For many, it was the most daring special forces rescue in history, a high point in Israeli international authority.

Don’t let the absence of a cinema release fool you: this is a high-production “ticking clock” action thriller directed by Brazilian José Padilha (“Robocop”), with a stellar international cast. One of the pleasures of this new version of the story is the portrayal of historic figures by contemporary actors, notably Israelis Lior Ashkenazi as (then Prime Minister) Yitzhak Rabin, Mark Ivanir as IDF Chief-of-Staff Motta Gur, Yifach Klein as Ehud Barak; British character actor Eddie Marsan as Shimon Peres; French actor Denis Ménochet (who played a  farmer that hid Jews in “Inglourious Bastards”) as the plane’s heroic flight engineer; and British Nigerian actor Nonso Anozie as Idi Amin. German actor Daniel Bruhl and British actress Rosamund Pike headline the cast, playing the German hijackers; the Palestinian hijackers remain less distinct personalities in Padilha’s telling.

It’s a “Euro-pudding” cast, with the film shot in Malta. Characters mostly speak English, with the occasional foray into German, Arabic, French or Hebrew. The result is a bit disconcerting as it’s not always clear what national background the characters are from.

If you are looking for language verisimilitude, this is not the film. Instead return to the Menachem Golan’s 1977 Israeli-made, Oscar-nominated “Operation Thunderbolt”, in which Yitzhak Rabin, Shimon Peres and Yigal Allon all played themselves.

What director Padilha does bring is a carefully plotted “actioner”, complete with internal arguments among Israeli politicians, how the IDF prepared for the assault on a mock-up of Entebbe Airport, and the rescue itself. There’s not quite enough tension (surely we all know how the story ends), but Padilha adds a new twist by exploring the German hijackers’ backgrounds and personalities, a theme he first utilised in his controversial Brazilian documentary “Bus 174”.

Oddly, the film opens with a rehearsal of the Israeli Batsheva Dance company practicing a rousing Hebrew version of Passover song “Achad Mi Yodea” (“Who Knows One”), also known as “the chair dance”, choreographed by company’s famed director Ohad Naharin. This intercutting of the dance sequence – it appears throughout the film, and returns as a full performance during the final scene during the airport raid at the film’s climax – is affecting and powerful, although its inclusion in the film is difficult to understand. One of the Batsheva performers is the girlfriend of one of the film’s characters, but what does the dance signify?

Director Jose Padilha explains that that he loves Israeli culture and admires the Israeli capability for self-criticism. The dance “is an amazing metaphor. The only way there’s going to be a solution [to the Palestinian conflict], the only way we are going to break this cycle of fear, is if somehow people strip themselves of their orthodox way of thinking.” Maybe, but I’m still scratching my head.

No matter. The story is too good to leave alone and seeing Batsheva on screen is thrilling. The final frames predictably – but satisfyingly – summarise the outcomes of the events.  Many viewers are likely to feel a renewed awe in the capability of Israeli military derring-do, a reminder of the intractability of the conflict and how Israelis were – indeed still are – capable of extraordinary feats of imagination and risk-taking.

(image above: the theatrical poster for US release in March 2018)


Film review of BlacKkKlansman

August 19, 2018

This film review of BlacKkKlansman appeared in the Australian Jewish News on 16 August 2018.

Directed by Spike Lee. Screenplay by Spike Lee, David Rabinowitz, Charlie Wachtel, Kevin Willmott, based on the book Black Klansman, by Ron Stallworth. Starring John David Washington, Adam Driver, Laura Harrier, Topher Grace and Jasper Pääkkönen

*****

Few films resonate with the American “current political moment” of increased overt racism and demonisation of minorities as Spike Lee’s film “BlacKkKlansman”. The film opened this week, purposefully aligned to the one year anniversary of the white supremacist “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, Virginia.

Just to be certain we don’t miss the point, Lee – a film-maker never accused of subtlety – ends “BlacKkKlansman” with graphic news footage from that event, including violent confrontations and President Trump’s “good people” comment. In the cinema preview when I saw the film, the audience didn’t emit a sound: we all “got” the point.

Set in 1972, “BlacKkKlansman” tells the incredible-but-true story of the how the first African-American policeman to work for the Colorado Springs Police Department, Ron Stallworth (John David Washington, son of Denzel, complete with large rounded “Afro”) successfully joined the Ku Klux Klan. Stallworth needs a white guy to “play” him in person with the Klan, so works closely with Jewish fellow policeman “Flip” Zimmerman (Adam Driver), a secular Jew whose awareness of his religious identity grows as the film progresses. Unlike Stallworth, Zimmerman can “pass” as a white Christian, even though Jews are number two on the KKK enemies list. Flip almost too convincingly plays the role of antisemite while being challenged possibly being Jewish: his response to a Holocaust denier where he excitedly elaborates on the achievements of the Holocaust is chilling in the extreme.

From it’s opening moments with a clip from “Gone with the Wind”, “BlacKkKlansman” illustrates its themes with powerful imagery, marking it as one of the best cinema releases this year (it won the “Grand Prix” at Cannes in May, and is running 97% positive on Rotten Tomatoes). A fictional white power character played by Alec Baldwin (the actor who plays President Trump on “Saturday Night Live”) rages straight to camera how “blood-sucking” Jews sponsor the “commie” civil-rights movement.

The language is shocking, but the message – repeated during the film numerous times in different ways – is clear: racism and antisemitism are integrally connected. Spike Lee has not previously been known for his sensitivity to Jewish issues – his “Mo’ Better Blues” (1990) stereotyped Jews as untrustworthy capitalists – but “BlacKkKlansman” marks new ground. The film’s two original writers – David Rabinowitz and Charlie Wachtel – are both Jewish. They placed the Jewish condition front and centre in the story, including making the Flip character Jewish (which he was not in real life). Lee took their original story and ran with it, both emphasising and deepening the connection. The result is a well-argued plea for black-Jewish rapprochement and partnership, one of the best in decades.

One of the film’s most Jewish moments occurs with no Jews on screen: an articulate speech given by Kwame Ture (Corey Hawkins), a black radical previously known as Stokely Carmichael, quotes Hillel the Elder: “If I am not for myself, who will be? If I am only for myself, what am I? If not now, when?” He then adds a fourth question, summing up the movie’s message: “And if not you, who?”

An upside down American flag – an officially recognised signal of dire distress – fills the screen at the film’s very end, and the colours slowly turn from red, white and blue to black and white. The effect is both profound and thought-provoking, underscoring Lee’s urgency of the moment.

The direction, acting and casting in “BlacKkKlansman” are all exquisite. Although the white supremacists are sometimes played as naïve fools (watch Topher Grace as the Klan’s Grand Wizard, David Duke), they are deadly fools, as a bombing subplot illustrates. The setting looks nothing like Colorado (in was shot in upstate New York), but no matter. This film is a strong drama about American racism (watch the scene where the undercover Ron Stallworth is beaten up by fellow policemen for being black), with numerous comic overtones and an emotionally satisfying conclusion. Jewish journalist Abraham Riesman has written a passionate essay on why “’BlackkKlansman’ is required viewing for Jews”. I agree.

(photo above: Adam Driver and John David Washington)

 

Read my review of Spike Lee’s film “25th Hour”, released in June 2003.


Film review of Foxtrot

June 22, 2018

(This film review of “Foxtrot” appeared in the Australian Jewish News paper on 21 June 2018, and online on 27 June 2018.)

Written and directed by Samuel Maoz; starring Lior Ashkenazi, Sarah Adler, Yonathan Shiray, Shira Haas, Yehuda Almagor and Karin Ugowski.

The new film Foxtrot belongs to the long list of eminent Israeli films that attempt to respond the country’s continuing cycle of war and conflict. The name foxtrot provides writer/director Samuel Maoz (Lebanon) with both a recurring theme as well as a metaphor for Israeli security and life. As a formal dance, the foxtrot’s four steps continue to rotate around a simple square, always returning to the same place.

The action in Foxtrot fits neatly into a variation of the classic three act film structure. The first third opens with the arrival of soldiers to the trendy, geometric grey-accented flat of architect Michael Feldmann (Lior Ashkenazi, from Footnote and Norman) and Dafna Feldmann (Sarah Adler, from Jellyfish). They come bearing news of every Israeli parent’s nightmare: their son Jonathan has been killed serving at a checkpoint in the north. What follows is a painful filmic study of extreme grief and anguish. Dafna faints, but the soldiers have come prepared with drugs they administer and put her to bed. Michael is struck dumb, wordless and barely moving. He and his brother Avigdor (Yehuda Almagor) are both irritated by the presence of an army rabbi – they are atheists – who tells Michael not to carry the coffin at the funeral because he will need to support his wife. As men must. But Michael, the son of a German Holocaust survivor who has dementia, is pursued by his own demons from his own army service, and is anything but the strong silent type he at first appears.

The second act moves to an isolated mud-bound army checkpoint, where four soldiers – including son Jonathan (Yonathan Shiray, who played the teenage Amos Oz in A Tale of Love and Darkness) – listlessly pass the time, checking the papers of the occasional passing car, working out of a leaking water tower and sleeping in a sinking shipping container. This chapter presents as a classic absurdist and surreal black comedy tinged with both melancholy and tragedy, typified by the periodic arrival of a lone camel galloping along the road – the most frequent promotional image for the film (see image below).

The final third of the film returns to the Feldman apartment, where Michael and Dafna’s marriage appears to be breaking down. Virginia Wolff style, we watch them slowly reveal their relationship’s anger, stresses and blame – a true tour de force of two-handed acting.

There is a devastating revelation (no spoilers here) towards the end of the first act that re-sets the film’s tone but does nothing to erase its pervading unease. Foxtrot is uncomfortable to watch, and many – particularly those who have lost loved ones in security conflicts – are likely to find the scenes of anguish and grief to be extremely painful. Foxtrot is not a film to love, but one to admire, for its filmic artistry, its formalism, its strong performances and the control that writer/director Maoz exerts over every frame. The production design is simple but effective, and inclusions such as animations are evocative and powerful. Foxtrot won the Grand Jury Prize at the Venice Film Festival and eight “Ophir” Israeli film awards, including best picture, director, actor and cinematography. While well-received by international critics (almost 100% positive on Rotten Tomatoes review aggregator), the film has been the subject of trenchant criticism by Israeli Culture Minister Miri Regev and others for its unrealistic portrayal of IDF actions.

Foxtrot premiered in Sydney at the Sydney Film Festival earlier this month and opened in Australian cinemas on 21 June 2018.


Film review of Menashe

March 11, 2018

(This film review of Menashe appeared in the Australian Jewish News on 8 February 2018.)

Directed by Joshua Z. Weinstein; written by Alex Lipschultz, Musa Syeed and Joshua Z. Weinstein; starring Menashe Lustig, Ruben Niborski, Yoel Weisshaus and Meyer Schwartz

In these days of mass entertainment, what a pleasure to discover in the film “Menashe” such a heart-felt authenticity. Set and shot in New York City’s Hasidic Brooklyn neighbourhood Borough Park, “Menashe” sets a modern record: it’s the first American film since “Hester Street” in 1975 in which the characters all speak Yiddish. Although “A Serious Man” (2009) and “The Frisco Kid” (1979) each had a Yiddish scene, contemporary popular film – even from Israel – has avoided the language.

“Menashe” tells the story of its title character, also Menashe, played by Menashe Lustig (a Hasidic actor and YouTube star), upon whose life the film is loosely based. He is a hapless and struggling single father of Rieven (Ruben Niborski) and whose wife Lea has passed away. Instructed by the local rebbe (Meyer Schwartz) to place Rieven in the care of the boy’s uncle (Yoel Weisshaus) and aunt until he re-marries, Menashe struggles to maintain dignity and connection with his son, with whom he has a tender and loving relationship. Every man needs “a good wife, a good home, nice dishes”.

Menashe chafes under the criticisms of his boss at the Hasidic-run supermarket (which sells un-washed lettuce), and painstakingly avoids attempts by well-meaning community members to match-make him with suitable women. The film hints strongly that Menashe’s marriage was less than happy (he admits being relieved but guilty when Lea died), and he appears to be in no rush to remarry, frustrating his potential partners.

Menashe lives a dreary, claustrophobic life, and steadfastly refuses to wear full Hasidic gear, preferring simple shirtsleeves without a top jacket. Menashe needs to prove he’s capable of looking after his son – to his brother-in-law, to the rabbi, to his neighbours, but most of all to himself. Can he overcome the klutziness that has him losing thousands of dollars worth of gefilte fish and burning the kugel he tries to bake? Will he rebel? Does he have the capability and capacity to re-set his life?

To its credit, “Menashe” the film avoids an easy melodramatic approach, one personified in the Netflix documentary “One of Us”, which follows three Hasidic people who leave their communities. The result is something much more subtle; the characters in “Menashe” are all flawed, yet each is sympathetic, three-dimensional and very real. Although director Joshua Z. Weinstein does not speak Yiddish (he worked through a translator), his experience as a documentarian means that he gets “up close and personal” with his actors, and they – although basically all amateurs – get to shine.

“Menashe” is an “insider” film, capturing a verisimilitude that audiences have warmed to. These actors didn’t need Yiddish lessons, but they did need a script and a director to bring their lives to the screen. Although set on a “small” stage, the film’s stories – and its truths – are just large enough to make it a feature film experience, a dramatised slice of modern Jewish life rarely shown so well.

“Menashe” was a great hit at last year’s Jewish Film Festival, and opens in selected cinemas this week.


Jewish themes and directors abound at Melbourne International Film Festival

July 30, 2017

(This article appeared in the Melbourne edition of the Australian Jewish News on 27 July 2017.)

Because there is no minimum “Jewish quota” at the Melbourne International Film Festival (MIFF, 3-20 August), the selection of films reflecting Jewish subjects and characters provides an unusual insight into how the “current moment” of Jewish life is reflected in contemporary film.  This year there are lots of Jewish stories, with Jews both behind and in front of the camera in the USA, Russia, Poland, Israel – and Australia.

In a festival full of Jewish film riches, the “must see” is the opening night world premiere of “Jungle”, a fictional re-telling by Greg McLean (Australian director of “Wolf Creek”) of the real-life story of adventurer and entrepreneur Yossi Ghinsberg, played by Jewish actor Daniel Radcliffe. The 22-year-old Ghinsberg travelled with two friends into the uncharted Amazon, but the dream trip turned into a nightmare from which not all returned. The film has been described as a “stunningly shot, edge-of-your seat story of survival and self-discovery …. entertaining, terrifying and deeply moving.” The Festival also features an “In Conversation” session with the real Yossi Ghinsberg and director Greg McLean, moderated by journalist Sandy George.

A different Israeli story features in the documentary “Death in the Terminal” by co-directors Asaf Sudry and Tali Shemesh, providing a tense, minute-by-minute account of mistaken identity and mob justice by recreating the events of a 2015 terrorist attack in Beersheva. Using CCTV footage, mobile phone videos and witness testimonies, real events unfold from multiple angles. (Caution: contains archival footage of real killings.)

Three fascinating films come from Russia – a contemporary thriller, a meditative documentary on the Holocaust and an early classic sci fi. “Closeness”, the feature debut from Kantemir Balagov, based on a true story is set in a Jewish enclave within a mostly-Muslim region of the Caucasus. The story follows Ilana (Jewish actress Darya Zhovner), whose family is rocked when her younger brother David and his fiancée are abducted, with the kidnappers demanding a large ransom. The program cautions that the film “contains archival footage of real killings”.

“Austerlitz”, by Russian-born Ukrainian filmmaker Sergei Loznitsa, draws on the “observational cinema” technique of Jewish film-maker Frederick Wiseman. Berlin-based Loznitsa frequently engages in Jewish topics and consciously named his film after the WG Sebald novel, “Austerlitz”, as it explores similar themes of memory and history. The film watches how tourists behave at two Nazi concentration camps: Dachau and Sachsenhausen. The black and white camera captures how sometimes intense, often distracted tourists act in these places. A true cultural commentary for our times. Loznitsa’s film “A Gentle Creature” – about the decay of modern Russia – also screens.

Many of the photographers and cinematographers in the Soviet Union until 1932 were Jews, including Jakov (Yakov) Protazanov, director of the ground-breaking 1924 silent “Aelita, Queen of Mars”. It was the first Soviet science fiction film ever made.

The rarely seen “The Man Who Cried” (2000) constitutes part of MIFF’s Sally Potter retrospective. Growing up in England, Russian Jewish refugee Suzie (Christina Ricci) befriends Russian dancer Lola (Cate Blanchett), gypsy horse-handler Cesar (Johnny Depp) and opera star Dante (John Turturro). The emotionally rich film follows Suzie through the Second World War to finding her father in America.

Two documentaries examine the experiences of Arab life on the West Bank. “Waiting for Giraffes”, looks at the only operating zoo on the West Bank. It’s a quixotic quest by zoo vet Dr Sami to build up the zoo and bring in new giraffes. In reaching out to his Israeli colleagues, the film posits hope for future friendly coexistence. Georgian-born Israeli film-maker Helen Yanovsky directs “The Boy from H2”, a 21 minute short about a 12-year-old Arab boy who lives in Hebron’s Area H2, a section of the city controlled by Israeli military; co-produced by the Israeli human rights organisation B’Tselem.

Agnieszka Holland (“Europa, Europa” and “Angry Harvest”), born in Warsaw in 1948 as the daughter of a Jewish father and a Catholic mother who received a Yad Vashem Righteous Persons medal, won the Berlinale’s Silver Bear with the feminist ecological thriller “Spoor”. Also from Poland comes “Afterimage”, the final film from the late master Andrzej Wajda (“Katyń”, “Land of Promise”), which dramatises the final years of Polish avant-garde artist Władysław Strzemiński, who observed the Holocaust unfolding first-hand living in Łódź in war-time Poland. Strzemiński’s 1947 piece, a 10 collage work entitled “To My Friends the Jews”, combined drawings and photographs from both the ghetto and death camps, to become one of the most significant “pro” Jewish works at a time of great antisemitism in that country.

Other Jewish directors abound. British-born Jewish comedian Ben Elton premieres his first Australian film, “Three Summers”, set in a fictional West Australian rural folk festival. New York Jewish indie directors and brothers Josh and Benny Safdie (the “new Coen brothers”) return with “Good Time”, nominated for the Palme d’Or at the latest Cannes Film Festival. Azazel Jacobs’ “The Lovers” stars Debra Winger and Tracey Letts; “The Lost City of Z” from James Gray’s (“The Immigrant”) tells an Amazon story not unlike Yossi Ghinsberg’s; and Marc Meyers’ “My Friend Dahmer” stars Ross Lynch as the notorious American serial killer Jeffrey Dahmer.

American Jewish documentarians represented in the Festival include John Scheinfeld “Chasing Trane”, about musician John Coltrane; Jeff Orlowski’s “Chasing Coral: The VR Experience”; Matthew Heineman “City of Ghosts”, about journalists and ISIS in Iraq; and Amir Bar-Lev’s “Long Strange Trip” about The Grateful Dead. Broadway producer Amanda Lipitz’s (“Legally Blonde”) “Step” charts stories of African-American dancers, and New York-based Israeli-born Shaul Schwarz’s “Trophy” explores the world of big-game hunters and animal rights activists.

Closer to home, MIFF includes a preview of ABC TV season 2 of “Glitch”, directed by Australian Jewish director Tony Krawitz. And Melbourne Jewish director Gregory Erdstein again collaborates with his wife, writer/actress Alice Foulcher, in Australian comedy “That’s Not Me”.

Also worth catching: a reprise of the 1956 classic American frightener “Invasion of the Body Snatchers” directed by Don Siegel; Chilean-Jewish director Alicia Scherson’s “Family Life”, a  “delightfully strange, heartfelt look at mid-30s ennui”; “Porto”, with the final performance by the late Jewish actor Anton Yelchin (“Star Trek”); and “Manifesto” a 90-minute version of the German-Australian multi-screen co-production in which Cate Blanchett plays 13 roles, loosely based on the Karl Marx tract.


Film review of Churchill

June 25, 2017

This film review of “Churchill” appeared in the Australian Jewish News on 15 June 2017.

Directed by Jonathan Teplitzky; written by Alex von Tunzelmann; starring Brian Cox, Miranda Richardson, John Slattery, Ella Purnell and James Purefoy

*****

As one of the towering political leaders of the 20th century, Winston Churchill holds a special place in British history, with a political career spanning five decades. His impassioned speeches as Prime Minister during World War II are often credited for having kept much of Britain’s heart and soul together, particularly during the darkest years early in the war.

The new film “Churchill” – by Australian Jewish director Jonathan Teplitzky (“The Railway Man”), working from a script by British historian Alex von Tunzelmann – may surprise some, because it does not focus on Churchill’s finest hours – of which there were so many. Instead, “Churchill” takes place over a few days in June 1944 leading up to the Normandy “D-Day” Allied landing. According to this film, Winston Churchill actively opposed the landing, promoting instead a southern European action by the Allies. The reason for his opposition? He feared tremendous casualties associated with a direct beach invasion, being haunted by the images of tens of thousands of young British soldiers dying during the first World War, at Gallipoli and elsewhere – when Churchill was First Lord of the Admiralty, the political head of the British Navy.

Although set at a crucial time during the war, the film feels like it could have been adapted from a play (it wasn’t), with most scenes set inside offices and residences. What the viewer most remembers from “Churchill” is Churchill the Prime Minister (played by iconic Scottish actor Brian Cox) arguing, primarily with Allied generals including Dwight Eisenhower (John Slattery, from “Mad Men”), but also with his wife, Clementine (Miranda Richardson).

Churchill’s staff fear that the stress of leadership means he is losing his grip on reality (Churchill was 69 years old at the time, and still had more than ten years of political life ahead). He abuses underlings and rants and raves, insisting that he must then go in on one of the first boats to the beach.

Given Winston Churchill’s extraordinary political career and his enormous accomplishments as a writer (he won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1953), public speaker, war strategist and protector of British national character, it seems curious – and overly grandiose – to name this small film in a way that implies that it’s a full biography. It certainly is not.

What “Churchill” the film does, however, is to give a platform for two of the greatest acting performances of the year: Brian Cox as Winston and Miranda Richardson as Clementine. The two of them are captivating, in the way that “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” showed us that an arguing couple could still be interesting. While John Slattery as Eisenhower is not nearly as well-cast, other characters provide great foils for Brian Cox’s screen power, including Julian Wadham as Field Marshall Montgomery, Richard Durden as South African statesman Jan Smuts, James Purefoy as King George VI (an understated but touching small role) and Ella Purnell as a war room secretary.

(image below: Brian Cox as Winston Churchill)