CHURCHILL – Review
Brian Cox portrays Winston Churchill in a dramatization of the events just prior to the D-Day invasion of France by Allied forces during World War II in CHURCHILL. Directed Jonathan Teplitzky (THE RAILWAY MAN, BBC’s INDIAN SUMMERS television series) from a script by historian Alex Von Tunzelmann, CHURCHILL aims to get beneath the usual familiar image of Churchill as a gruff, cigar-chewing British bulldog to create a fuller human portrait of the man who grappled with deep depression and fears of failure while leading his country through its darkest hours.
It is an admirable aim but unfortunately the film falls far short of its goal. Led by an overheated performance by Cox, Churchill stages a last-minute attempt to stop the 1944 Normandy Invasion, gripped with fear that it would fail. Less than a week before D-Day, Britain’s prime minister confronts and tries to wrest control of Operation Overlord, as the invasion was code-named, from the leader of the Allied forces General Dwight Eisenhower (John Slattery), British General Montgomery (Julian Wadham), British Field Marshall Alan Brooke, known as Brookie (Danny Webb), and other military leaders. Meanwhile, his aide Jan Smuts (Richard Durden) tries to rein in his boss, while his smart, steady wife Clementine, called Clemmie (Miranda Richardson), attempts to calm a Churchill in crisis.
Drinking heavily, the prime minister becomes increasingly impulsive and explosive. The military leaders react with polite disbelief, and disregard his barked orders. At one point Eisenhower tells Churchill that he doesn’t have time for his “theatrics” and “there’s a war on.” Churchill is treated dismissively, like an elder statesman out of power rather than the current prime minister. It is an unsettling thing to watch.
This startling, seemingly far-fetched plot has some basis in fact but the history has been manipulated for dramatic effect. Churchill did have serious doubts about the invasion’s success some weeks before its launch but he was reconciled to the operation by the time it took place. By compressing time and moving it closer to the invasion’s date, the filmmakers hoped to add heightened drama while focusing on Churchill’s bouts with depression and highlighting his relationship with his remarkable wife. Instead, the departure from fact undermines the believability of the script and makes Churchill seem more unbalanced than credible, creating a distinctly unflattering portrait of the man the film itself calls “the greatest Briton.” Ironically, Von Tunzelmann writes a column critiquing historical movies for the Guardian newspaper, so one would expect she would know the pitfalls.
In this film, Churchill is less British bulldog, and more bulldog in a china shop. Rather than creating insight into the human flaws of a great man, the film offers an embarrassing view of him. This Churchill seems like an inconsequential madman, racing around barking orders no one follows, barging in on the generals, and bullying his young secretary (Ella Purnell). Drinking heavily and in physical decline, he re-lives his experiences as a military leader and is haunted by the bloody, disastrous Gallipoli landing, which he associates with the upcoming Normandy landing. Meanwhile, those around him whisper behind his back about how he used to be a great man. One would never know this was the person who continued to lead his country through the war and his party afterwards from this film.
The film also explores difficulties in the Churchills’ marriage, although again that crisis took place at another time. The filmmakers just seem so intent on cramming into this one week every aspect of Churchill’s life, that it simply becomes a confusing jumble.
Neither Cox nor the rest of the cast are able to overcome the shortcomings of this script. Miranda Richardson gives a valiant try in the thankless role as Churchill’s wife Clemmie, who was a stabilizing force and someone who willing to speak bluntly and truthfully to her blustering husband. Richard Durden as aide Jan Smuts, a veteran of the Boer War, and Julian Wadham as flinty Gen. Montgomery do well in their roles but John Slattery seems miscast as Eisenhower. James Purefoy plays King George VI well in a pivotal late scene, based on a letter the king actually wrote to his prime minister.
The film, shot in Scotland, looks nice, with careful period detail attention to costumes and sets. Scenes of a solitary Churchill on the beach frame the film’s story, providing moments of contemplation in an appealing natural setting. At the beginning of the film, the shoreline and lapping water provoke memories of the loss of life at Gallipoli but at the film’s end, it suggests only an escape to nature’s quiet. Ironically, these are among the more successful moments in the film.
The film finally returns to believability, and Cox’s Churchill seems to return to a rational state, by the time of the invasion takes place, but the bad taste of what went before lingers.
This is the first of two films about Winston Churchill due out this year. Let’s hope the next one is better than this well-meaning misfire.
Rating: 2 out of 5 stars