One of the earliest and most foreboding images in Churchill comes as a put-upon Prime Minister stands by the sea. As the tides gently roll in, his famous Homburg hat blows into the water and when he bends down to retrieve it, the tide appears to him to be reddened with blood. Regrettably, it’s the first and last cinematic beat in a film that puts its lead character’s inner turmoil upfront.
It’s June 1944, and Winston Churchill (Brian Cox) cuts a less impressive figure than he did when he was inspiring the people of Britain as they came under attack from Nazi forces years earlier. In fact, he finds himself listing in the margins of an Allied high command led by Dwight D. Eisenhower (John Slattery) as they plan Operation Overlord and the Dunkirk landings.
With previous wars firmly at the front of his mind, Churchill stubbornly attempts to assert his own influence to avert a plan that he believes will lead to massive loss of life. In the four days leading up to D-Day, he finds little solace in the counsel of his wife Clementine (Miranda Richardson), his friend Smuts (Richard Durden), his secretary Miss Garnett (Ella Purnell), or even the King (James Purefoy) himself.
If you’re looking for this year’s Deep Impact/Armageddon showdown, it might just be films about Winston Churchill. But quite aside from the arrival of Joe Wright’s Darkest Hour, starring Gary Oldman as Churchill in the early days of his premiership, later this year, Operation Overlord has already been treated with charm and a stiff upper lip in Their Finest‘s film-within-a-film, and is set to get the Christopher Nolan treatment in next month’s Dunkirk.
But much like its portrayal of Churchill as a compassionate and self-aggrandizing figure, the film itself struggles to do anything remarkable in the process. Historian Alex von Tunzelmann, who formerly reviewed the historical accuracy of current films in her meticulous Reel History column for the Guardian, provides a suitably informed screenplay.
It’s a little dry and necessarily reverent, but in the transition to the screen, director Jonathan Teplitzky seems to have directed everyone to either mumble or bellow most of the dialogue, with little variation in between. Cox’s haunted performance is far more than a jowly caricature, encompassing such fury and self-pity, at one point perfectly describing himself as a clapped out, toothless old lion. But while he may be a long way from the Winston Churchill on Bigheads, that doesn’t mean that the drama around him isn’t still a bit ‘Sunday night on ITV’.
There are two other standouts, the first of which is the magnificent Miranda Richardson, who seems alternately amused and exasperated at her husband’s assumptions that he might yet win the war single-handedly. Ironically, the second standout is James Purefoy, who gives himself 100% to his brief turn as King George VI, even though there’s no chance that anyone watching won’t immediately be reminded of Colin Firth in The King’s Speech. The scenes in which Cox plays against both Richardson and Purefoy are the highlights of the film.
At other points, the film ends up grasping quite desperately for pathos, with an eleventh-hour introduction of personal stakes for Ella Purnell’s wide-eyed secretary and a preposterous moment of prayer from Cox, but in truth, many of its better emotional moments arise naturally from performance rather than the page.
Churchill is a mannered character study, with its PG certificate and heavy dramatic irony, but there are still reasons to catch up with this introspective piece. You’ll more likely wait to catch it on the small screen than rush out to see it in cinemas, but if this is your kind of film, there are definitely performances that will make it worth the wait.
Churchill is in UK cinemas now.