Starring: Brian Cox, Miranda Richardson, Ella Purnell
Director: Jonathan Teplitzky
Running Time: 98 mins
Synopsis: It is June 1944 and the Allied high command are planning the largest invasion of the Second World War, D-Day. Haunted by the memories of Gallipoli in WW1 prime minister Winston Churchill stands in its way. Determined to nix the plan at every opportunity, he comes up against American generals, the King and his own wife in his increasingly desperate battle to win.
Portraying an icon on screen is no easy task, especially when that icon is the statuesque Winston Churchill. Regularly voted the Greatest British icon of all time as this film clunkily reminds us with an on screen end graphic, and so elevated that in the last year alone we will have had no less than 3 great actors play him (John Lithgow in The Crown and Gary Oldman in Joe Wright’s upcoming The Darkest Hour). Not to mention inspiring a corporate mascot for an insurance company (is there any greater honour). Therefore you’ve got to be ready to offer something fresh when telling a biopic. Most suffer from a tendency to deify their subjects, fearful of portraying their darker sides in case of reprisals. Thankfully Churchill reaches for a character complexity that overcomes the weaknesses within the story.
Opening with a familiar silhouette, this film rather overuses the token image of Churchill in hat, coat and that oh so ridiculous cigar, as he stares at the crashing waves. In a surreal horrifying touch the sea is awash with blood, as Winston flashes back to a terrible defeat during the previous Great War. It is an effective tool of showcasing the mental fragility he was suffering from at the time, although the budgetary limitations mean we get but sounds of warfare rather than actual glimpses. Interrupting during this turmoil reflection is his wife Clementine, played by Miranda Richardson. Her introduction gives an intriguing marital angle to the film that is sadly not as utilised as it should be. They are a strained couple, him cold and distant, her stoic to his needs but isolated. Richardson excels as the only person able to truly control him, especially as his mind gets ever more turbulent. Her frustrations are palpable but she manages to layer in a real warmth towards Winston resulting in some moving moments towards the end.
The bulk of the film is rooted in a rather unknown part of history, that Churchill was very much against the invasion of Normandy, despite how integral it ended up becoming in helping the Allies win the war. Driven to protect the forces from what he sees as inevitable slaughter, due in part to the mistakes he made leading the army at Gallipoli, he rubs up against the might of the American generals led by John Slattery’s Eisenhower. Unfortunately his constant ranting and stubbornness force them to cast him out. It is an upsetting but thoroughly sensible decision, that Cox plays with wounded shock. After all this is the man who led Britain through the misery of the Blitz, and withheld the Nazis for over 2 years before the yanks swooped in. There is a tenderness to him in his noble pursuit to protect, yet the film refreshingly hints that there is more egotistical reasons driving this. Faced with losing his standing now the Americans have arrived, he is determined to feel in control. Although the film does pain itself to make this known, with no less than 3 different characters mentioning that “he just wants to feel involved.”
We all know how events eventually played out, and Churchill knows this. Instead director Teplitzky (The Railway Man) hones in on character and the moral debate in sending men to the death would create. This does cause the film to suffer from a lack of plot momentum, content to just drift rather gently through what are quite small dramatic beats. The movement from domestic drama, to wartime ticking time thriller, to a third act that involves writing a speech, gives the film an odd flow. Each working well separately but never quite gelling as a whole. It does put into perspective just how powerful a stirring speech can be, especially in the current climate of leaders using token generic slogans or words of hate. Emotive vocabulary, intense humanity and stern delivery can elicit true elation, and Cox sells this moment with utter conviction.
Brian Cox really is a fierce presence here. Cutting an uncanny appearance in look and posture, whilst veering between ferocious spittle and hollow vulnerability, he is immensely captivating. There is no fear in showing just how vicious he could be to other people, yet an empathy towards his fellow man is certainly what drives him. It is a fully nuanced portrayal which leaves a high bar for Gary Oldman to attempt to smash come the Autumn.
Other cast members more than match him, offering brief roles for a number of British character actors, including Julian Wadham as a quietly heroic General Montgomery and James Purefoy’s gently affectionate King George. Ella Purnell also does heart on sleeve work as Churchill’s frequently berated secretary. A later plot contrivance involving her and a soldier husband is just about held back from silliness thanks to her wide-eyed vulnerability. And it’s always good to have John Slattery and his characterful delivery on screen.
Primarily an actor piece which helps to outweigh the rather dull direction throughout. Teplitzky films this with a flatness, and an oddly chosen flourish in which he slows the image down before speeding it up to normal at the start of numerous scenes. Also the less said about the hopelessly childish introductory and closing factual cards the better. Production design is solid but the film very rarely ventures outside of Governmental buildings or war rooms to offer a difference in palate, whilst the score is content to plug on the heartstrings as generically as possible. Far from a badly directed film it is instead a lumpen one, with the only real fireworks coming from the belly of Churchill’s frequent rants. Performance wise Churchill is second to none, but as a full picture it is sadly about as interesting as the car insurance ads which bear its name.
Verdict: Churchill is a little slight and lacks plot thrust or cinematic inspiration, but as a portrait of an iconic, complicated and ferocious man it is terrific. Cemented by a blustery nuanced Brian Cox performance.