Film review: Churchill

David Gritten / 14 June 2017

Saga film critic David Gritten reviews the controversial new film Churchill.

It’s probably impossible to make a film about a universally famous figure who we all know -or crucially, who we think we know. Everyone has an opinion, ill-founded or not. Winston Churchill is arguably the most eminent individual Briton of the past century, and it’s no surprise that already a handful of historians (who seem to feel they have some proprietary claim to portrayals of him) have rushed into print to denounce director Jonathan Teplitzky’s new film.

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In truth, Churchill – that one-word title is sufficient – is no masterpiece, but it’s a decent, interesting piece of work. Like its titular hero, it has its flaws, but only a handful of them feel serious.

It should be said right away that Brian Cox, a great actor any day of the week, is superb in the main role. The story concentrates on the 96 hours in 1944 prior to the D-Day landings in Normandy by some 250,000 Allied troops. Churchill was at this point close to turning 70. Cox, who is himself around that age, thoroughly inhabits his character. While Cox’s performance stops short of impersonation, he has the Churchillian voice, speech patterns, gait and temperament down to a tee.

The film’s unsettling premise is that Churchill had grave doubts about the wisdom of the D-Day landings (code-named Operation Overlord) right up to the final hours before they went ahead. Simply, he feared a bloodbath, with thousands of young British servicemen slaughtered, all for an initiative that might fail disastrously.

His reluctance to endorse the mission brings him into direct conflict with the supreme commander of Allied and US forces, General Eisenhower (played with brisk efficiency by John Slattery, best known from TV’s Mad Men.), who makes it clear that he is running the show, no matter how often Churchill angrily stabs his cigar in Eisenhower’s direction.

The film shows Churchill wrestling with his inability to win the argument, and regretfully obsessed about his role three decades earlier at Gallipoli, another historic landing with a high death toll and a catastrophic outcome.  Just to make Churchill’s fears crystal clear, we see him walking alone along a deserted beach, where the waves turn blood red as he surveys them – an overwrought image.

This is a devastating time for him, and he feels acutely aware of his failing powers and influence. Churchill, of course, was famously depressive (he referred to his condition as his ‘black dog’) and while this aspect of his character is not explicitly spelled out, it informs his behaviour.

His relationship with his wife Clementine (a predictably outstanding Miranda Richardson) is abrasive - she seems weary of his mood swings and brooding on his inability to sway the argument, and she tells him as much. The great man gets fretful over the wording of a speech: should he say ‘trials’ or ‘tribulations’?

Most of this comes down to well-informed speculation on the part of the film’s screenwriter Alex von Tunzelmann, and as such it’s routine in adapting a real life for film. But I have a problem with her admission that she compressed the time frame about Churchill’s dithering over Operation Overlord. In reality, he was expressing severe doubts about its wisdom some three weeks before it happened – but to heighten the film’s drama and invest it with a ‘ticking clock’ quality, she portrays him still trying to put a spanner in the works right up to the eve of D-Day. That feels, quite simply, like a misrepresentation.  

Still, it remains a watchable film, with a fine central performance buttressed by plausible acting throughout. One small role stands out: in one scene James Purefoy, playing the stuttering, hesitant King George VI, must tell Churchill that his wish for them both to sail with the D-Day fleet cannot and will not happen. One senses it’s agony for the shy king to stand up to Churchill like this; Purefoy nails his discomfort exquisitely. 

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