Director: Jonathan Teplitzky
Cast: Brian Cox, Miranda Richardson, John Slattery, Richard Durden
Running time: 98 minutes
In the days leading up to the 1944 invasion of Normandy, Winston Churchill (Cox), plagued by the guilt of the disastrous Gallipoli landings during World War I, struggles with his own fear and doubt over the operation led by Dwight ‘Ike’ Eisenhower (Slattery).
While portrayals of the man often lauded the Greatest Briton of all time – a fact that Jonathan Teplitzky’s film goes out if its way to remind us of via an ending intertitle – are no stranger to the screen (Michael Gambon and Timothy Spall have donned the famous hat and cigar combo in recent years), none have been quite as unexpectedly complex as Cox’s turn in Churchill.
So often depicted as the driving force, and face, of the D-Day landings, Teplitzky opts to go against tradition, and instead gives us a Churchill who is a depressed, withering, stubborn shadow of the iconic figure we all so readily accept him as. When we first meet him, clad head-to-toe in the distinctive clobber, walking stick in hand, staggering solitarily along a southern English beach, it’s as if we are witnessing a man at the end of his days, reflecting upon the life he’s lived. The lapping waves soon begin stain the shore with the bloody memory of the countless lives lost during war. As the haunting cries of soldiers are heard, and the famed Homburg hat floats silently atop the water, it’s a bleak, if not slightly artificially construed, tone-setter: this is a Churchill of vulnerability; fighting war both on the Western front, as well as the one raging inside him.
As with many biopics, the temptation would be to try and cram an entire life’s worth of achievement into a 2-hour whistle-stop tour. Very sensibly, however, Teplitzky chooses to restrict his timeline to a matter of days – and a very snappy 98-minute run time – resulting in a meticulous character study that runs deeper and more intriguing than expected. In a film set in WWII, about a man known almost exclusively for his wartime heroics, there is, somewhat ironically, no combat on show. Instead, the conflict exists entirely in the rural gardens and offices of Blighty, as Churchill battles with both the military hierarchy and his own demons, as he tries relentlessly to prevent the go-ahead of a mission he is assured will fail. Pleading his case to as many of the authoritative figures of the time as he possibly can – Eisenhower, General ‘Monty’ Montgomery (Julian Wadham), and King George VI (James Purefoy, taking the cinematic mantle from Colin Firth and giving an impressively understated turn as the stuttering monarch) – and despite already knowing his D-Day sabotaging efforts are a failure and his assumptions about the mission proved totally wrong, it is an odd sensation nevertheless to watch a man of widely respected wartime influence being undermined by desperation and poor judgement.
What manifests then, is an examination of Churchill as less of an all-powerful, domineering presence, but a far more emotional, unstable, temperamental, and personal depiction that makes him interchangeably appealing and dislikeable. It’s certainly access more areas here, as Cox’s PM becomes increasingly defined by his own moral compass as the film gathers momentum. And Teplitzky throws so much weight towards Churchill’s obligation to prevent the death of thousands of young men, that such a moral dilemma soon becomes unnecessarily repetitive and over-baked. One such sub-plot involving a supporting character’s loved one – mirroring that of Morten Tyldum’s The Imitation Game – feels overtly manipulative and an utterly needless device to hammer home an already firmly hammered-home point.
But if the Churchill in Churchill as a historical and narrative figure is flawed, the same cannot be said of Brian Cox’s mightily impressive encapsulation of the titular character. Cox is no impressionist or caricature here, he is an embodiment of gruff, unfiltered Winston Churchill as both human being and human island (as if a metaphor for the British Isles itself) that we have rarely seen previously. One unusual moment of soliloquised prayer – as though it has been plucked straight from the pages of a Shakespearian text – feels largely out of place, but this appears less of a blemish on Cox’s performance as much as the script itself. The climatic “never surrender” radio broadcast might be as expectedly emotive as they come, but Cox’s stellar work in the build-up allows for a shameless audience fist pump when the time comes, with the speech itself carrying a timely relevance to the world we currently live in (the scenes of a bloody sea are perhaps as poignantly contemporary as they are a metaphor for the loss of life in WWII). In a film that dedicates so much attention to the depiction of one man therefore, it is perhaps inevitable that much of the supporting cast take the back seat. The military folk are primarily just that; however, Miranda Richardson’s Clemmie pops up every now and again to great, humorous effect as the perfect foil to Churchill’s raves and rants. And it’s the pair of them that share in the film’s more organically powerful emotional scenes that work best to deconstruct the enigma of Mr Churchill.
An intriguing, fresh, but frustratingly flawed attempt at humanising an icon. Could there be a better choice than Cox? No. Could Churchill be improved? Oh, yes, yes, yes (*starts nodding head)…