UK Release Date: 16th June 2017
Runtime: 98 minutes
Director: Jonathan Teplitzky
Writer: Alex von Tunzelmann
Starring: Brian Cox, Miranda Richardson, John Slattery, Ella Purnell, James Purefoy, Julian Wadham
Synopsis: In the period leading up to the D-Day landings, Churchill grapples with the American command of the Allied forces over his fears that Operation Overlord is a huge tactical miscalculation.
Despite his prominence in British history, Winston Churchill has proved simply too big a challenge for the big screen. He has appeared as a supporting character in tonnes of films and several TV movies have tried to tackle his formidable legacy. Actors as varied as Albert Finney, Brendan Gleeson, Timothy Spall and Michael Gambon have taken a swing at the cigar-chomping Prime Minister and now, ahead of Gary Oldman later this year in Darkest Hour, it’s Brian Cox taking on the big man for Churchill. Cox delivers a powerhouse performance, but the film surrounding him is a blandly televisual tale with a lot of bluster, but very little sizzle.
As the Allied forces prepare for the D-Day invasion of Normandy, Winston Churchill (Cox) express his misgivings about the plans. He tries to convince US commander General Eisenhower (John Slattery) to abandon the risky strategy and is dismissed as an interfering old man by other senior figures behind the invasion. His wife Clementine (Miranda Richardson) is one of the few people Winston will listen to, but he also forms a surprisingly poignant relationship with new secretary Helen (Ella Purnell).
The myriad problems with Churchill have nothing to do with its performances. Cox is fantastic in the lead role, physically embodying Churchill perfectly and providing a real hulking physicality in the way he moves from room to room like a wounded animal. Cox is careful to avoid the cliché possible when portraying such a memorable historical figure and does strong work with the “black dog” of depression that plagued the man – manifesting here in flashbacks to the bloody aftermath of the Battle of Gallipoli almost 30 years earlier.
Unfortunately, Cox is not given material to match his performance. Melodrama is baked into Alex von Tunzelmann’s miserable script, which delivers scene after scene of men yelling at each other in darkened rooms before being whispered at by women afterwards. Cox is given pages and pages of laughable sub-Shakesperean soliloquies that feel out of place anywhere other than the stage. One scene, in which Churchill prays for the rain that could call off the invading forces, is almost comedic in its lighting and direction. Cox delivers these scenes with gravitas, but the writing doesn’t match his talent. The same is true of Miranda Richardson and John Slattery, who are admirable in their roles, but never allowed to shine as they should.
The stagey, often televisual, feel is not helped by Jonathan Teplitzky‘s simplistic direction, which never seems to stretch beyond simple, straightforward shots. David Higgs’ impressive lensing provides a little flair, but this is visually a rather unimaginative film. It is also plotted with a stately pace that sees its 98 minutes of running time seem to literally elongate in front of the viewer, with some monologues extending for what feels like forever with little material impact on the story.
Churchill at times seems rather concerned with providing a showcase for its performers in the most basic way possible. Every character gets at least one scene that would be played on their behalf during the Oscars montage, but most of them could be lifted out of the film without affecting the story that it is telling. Pre-release publicity suggested that the film would be something of a character assassination that could damage the legacy of a man frequently lauded as the greatest ever Briton. If only it were that interesting.
Pop or Poop?
A historical figure as complex as Winston Churchill deserves a film more layered and interesting than Churchill, which attempts to provide a different take on the character, but lacks any sense of storytelling flair. Brian Cox excels in the leading role, but is given nothing but melodrama to perform. Hopefully Oldman’s take on the character will get a better script.
Do you agree with my review? Let me know in the comments section.