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Interview: Jonathan Teplitzky

Australian director Jonathan Teplitzky’s World War II drama offers an intensely personal insight into Britain’s iconic prime minister, Winston Churchill.

An intimate character study, Churchill observes its larger than life subject during a period of crisis – the countdown to the D-Day landings on June 6, 1944. We’ve seen the ill-fated beach landing at Normandy in numerous war movies, but this is really the first time a film has properly gone behind-the-scenes to explore the politics of the campaign, the monumental decisions that must be made, and the emotional impact upon those who make them.

“When I read the script it felt interesting and fresh to me, a different take on the usual biopic,” director Jonathan Teplitzky tells STACK. “I like biopics that get under the skin of the character and explore a little more than just what they achieved. What interested me was this script took on the mantle of saying this great man had basically become increasingly isolated as the war raged on and the Americans were basically running it from the Allied point of view. It asks this big question of how Churchill dealt with that and finding what his relevant place was to make not only a contribution, but to maintain his status as wartime prime minister and leader.”

Rather than simply repeat what’s in the history books, Teplitzky wanted to create a very intimate and personal portrait of a man who history regards in an iconic and heroic way, and credits his leading actor, Brian Cox, with giving the audience access to this human element.

“It’s one thing to sit back and observe events, but it’s another to be taken on a journey by an actor who gives the audience the sense of what it felt like – both psychologically and emotionally – to be Churchill and living through the historical and political events, but also the personal struggles of the time.

“He prepared so intimately and deeply. That’s reflected by not only the performance that he gives, but the extraordinary talent and experience that went into crafting that performance in a very multi-layered way. It’s a great role that’s been waiting for Brian.”

As well as revealing Churchill’s personal struggle with angst and depression, the film highlights his guilt over the Gallipoli landings – an element the director was keen to explore further.

“The film focuses primarily on Gallipoli and a number of beach landings he was involved with – Dunkirk being another one – where there was a massive loss of life. And his sense of that and his guilt of that, of being responsible for it, I think haunted him through his later years. In many ways, the film’s energy comes from him not wanting to repeat that mistake.

“It was the conscience on Churchill’s shoulder,” he continues. “The consequences and his guilt, his uncertainty and vulnerability that stemmed from what happened in Gallipoli, and his role in it. Never wanting to be responsible for that level of loss again.

“I’ve always looked at Churchill as the iconic figure he became, but also as somebody who’s indelibly connected to the failure at Gallipoli, particularly on a human level. It was an interesting film to make, for me as an Australian.”

Winston Churchill is enjoying something of a renaissance on screen of late, with Joe Wright’s biopic The Darkest Hour – starring Gary Oldman as Churchill – to follow later in the year. Teplitzky sees this as both a coincidence and a reflection of the times we’re living in.

“When you live in times of uncertainty, people want to feel secure and they want to be led well,” he offers, “so there’s a great propensity to look back to the great leaders of the past – often with rose-tinted glasses because you remember the great achievements of strong leadership. Churchill falls into the role very easily, but the danger of that is, if you’re going to look back and you’re going to remember him as a great leader, you also have to look at the failings and the vulnerability. And ultimately all the components that made the man who was Winston Churchill.”

Churchill is in cinemas on June 8.

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