The opening shots of this 2019 film directed by Gabriel Le Bomin show a tender and intimate moment in the bedroom of Charles de Gaulle (Lambert Wilson) and his wife Yvonne (Isabelle Carré). It sets the tone in this biopic that holds the dual strands of the personal and the political in what seems to be a unique cinematic screen exposé of the man who led Free France against the Nazi invasion and went on to be President of France.
An extended family dinner shows a relaxed group with the head of the family, a uniformed de Gaulle, watching them benignly as generations mix with apparent ease. It is here that we are aware that the youngest child of the devoutly Catholic family, Anne, (Clémence Hittin) has Downs syndrome. At a time when there was little understanding of the condition, and when those with the diagnosis were likely to spend their lives in an institution, Anne is portrayed as being a much loved child of the family. She is given extra care by live in nanny, Marguerite Potel (Catherine Mouchet) who we see teaching her to glue dried flowers in a book that de Gaulle sentimentally carries with him on his missions.
Taking place between April and June 1940, de Gaulle is caught in the machinations of war with le Maréchal Philippe Pétain (Philippe Laudenbach), who had made his name during WW1, envisaging imminent defeat and urging surrender to Hitler’s forces, something that is anathema to de Gaulle.
He is sent secretly to London by Prime Minister Paul Reynaud, played by Olivier Gourmet who is familiar in more light hearted roles, but who steps in to the statesman’s shoes with impressive ease. In London, de Gaulle transmits a strong patriotic message to French listeners via a BBC programme after which he receives a telegram warning him that if he returns to France he will be charged with treason.
While he is taking immense and important strategic decisions that will change the course of the war, his family is in the process of fleeing France to the perceived safety of Algiers or England. While the journey of every refugee must be fraught with anxiety, it is notable that the majority of those fleeing on foot are glimpsed by the de Gaulle family from the relative comfort of their car.
Lambert Wilson, who was nominated for Best Actor in the César Awards 2021 for his role as the eponymous de Gaulle, speaks with a clarity in that role to match the renowned measured enunciation of de Gaulle himself and Tim Hudson does a good job as the oft portrayed Winston Churchill who speaks his French with a stubborn English accent during negotiations. Notably, the subtitles show that a French reference to ‘les Anglais’ is translated as ‘the British’ though at the time ‘English’ was generally used to describe any UK nationals and the entire UK referred to as ‘England.’
Shot in the nostalgic colours associated with the era and with the tone UK audiences are familiar with in this genre of film, it has striking scenes of coastal views of parts of Northern France between the dual story lines of de Gaulle’s military and family roles. It shows a loving and loved husband – a man near solitary in his aim with a deep and lasting love of his country.