'Churchill': Film Review

Close, but no cigar.

Brian Cox, Miranda Richardson and John Slattery star in Jonathan Teplitzky’s historical drama about Winston Churchill’s objections to the risky D-Day invasion plan.

A robust star vehicle for Brian Cox, but otherwise underwhelming, Churchill dramatizes the agonizing private doubts that Britain’s wartime leader felt during the buildup to the D-Day landings in June 1944. As with his previous World War II-themed feature, The Railway Man, Australian director Jonathan Teplitzky has fashioned a small-scale chamber drama from huge historical events, with a functional script and modest budget that fails to match the grand sweep of its story.

That said, Cox fans will enjoy seeing the veteran Scottish bruiser give a powerhouse, mischief-laced performance that feels too big for the flimsy production around him. Historians and military scholars may also flock to see the film, if only to violently disagree with its distorted take on real events. Churchill debuts in French and U.S. theaters this week, just ahead of the June 6 D-Day anniversary, with further global openings to follow throughout June.

Sporting a shaved head and bulked-up body, Cox joins Albert Finney, Richard Burton, Michael Gambon, Timothy Spall and John Lithgow in the illustrious pantheon of actors who have played Churchill. The 70-year-old Scotsman is sometimes prone to scenery-chewing and wobbly accents, but he does a generally solid job here, nailing the late prime minister’s declamatory speech patterns, hulking gait and jaw-jutting scowl. Alive to the power of creating a strong public image, the real Churchill was quite the theatrical performer himself, but Cox shows us the private anguish, as well as the rambunctious political showmanship, squeezing nuance from oft-mimicked and easily caricatured mannerisms.

The film is bookended by lyrical scenes of a solitary Churchill wandering a deserted beach, haunted by ghostly visions of blood-soaked waves and young bodies piled on the sand. These are flashbacks to the catastrophic Gallipoli Campaign of World War I, when the Allies sacrificed more than 56,000 soldiers, the vast majority of them British. Such macabre horror-movie images may seem lurid, but they are lifted directly from Churchill’s warnings to General Dwight D. Eisenhower about the high price of getting the D-Day plans wrong.

New Zealand-born historian turned screenwriter Alex von Tunzelmann collapses several months of doubt and debate into a few dramatic days, thus upping the stakes and amplifying the personality clashes involved. In reality, Churchill was fully committed to the Operation Overlord invasion plan by the time D-Day loomed. In the film, he is still fiercely arguing for strategic delays and decoy tactics at the 11th hour, butting heads with an implacable Eisenhower (Mad Men alum John Slattery, underused here) and an exasperated General Bernard Montgomery (Julian Wadham). “We must fix this broken plan before it ends in tragedy,” warns Churchill.

Energized by qualified support from King George VI (James Purefoy) and starry-eyed fan worship from keen office junior Helen Garrett (Ella Purnell), Churchill throws himself into forging an alternative Allied invasion plan for D-Day. In the process, he becomes an irascible, insufferable, booze-soaked bully.

Only delicate ego-flattering by his long-suffering wife, Clementine (Miranda Richardson), can bring Churchill back around to common sense and patriotic duty. “He needs to feel part of it,” she explains to wary colleagues. Behind every great man is an infinitely patient woman, silently rolling her eyes. Kudos to Teplitzky and von Tunzelmann for showing Churchill not just in his familiar heroic light as a great statesman, but also as a needy, thin-skinned, tantrum-throwing baby. Certain world leaders could learn valuable lessons from this film.

By concentrating on Churchill’s private neuroses, marital power balance and stirring oratory skills, Teplitzky and von Tunzelmann seem to be aiming for an intimate backstage snapshot akin to The King’s Speech, but they never quite muster the same level of comic warmth. Cox aside, this pedestrian drama is hobbled by too many monodimensional characters and too much overly explanatory dialogue that feels like a dry high school history lesson: “Operation Overlord will require 200,000 vehicles, a fleet of 7,000 ships, swarms of planes ...” etc., etc.

Cinematographer David Higgs gives Churchill a pleasingly painterly look, using silhouettes and reflections as recurring visual motifs. The Scottish-shot locations provide plenty of scenic backdrops, though keen-eyed viewers may wonder why wartime London looks uncannily like Edinburgh. Lorne Balfe’s twinkly musical score has a touching delicacy at first, but drags over the long haul.

Production company: Salon Pictures
Distributor: Cohen Media Group
Cast: Brian Cox, Miranda Richardson, John Slattery, James Purefoy, Ella Purnell, Richard Durden, Julian Wadham
Director: Jonathan Teplitzky
Screenwriter: Alex von Tunzelmann
Producers: Nick Taussig, Paul Van Carter
Cinematographer: David Higgs
Production designer: Chris Roope
Costume designer: Bart Cariss
Editor: Chris Gill
Music: Lorne Balfe
Casting Director: Daniel Hubbard

Rated PG, 98 minutes