Film Review: Churchill

Handsome production that focuses on Winston Churchill’s role in the Normandy invasion and that of wife Clementine as a sobering force breaks no new ground but will satisfy the battalions of insatiable war buffs and Churchill fans.
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The good news and bad news is the same: Churchill, starring Brian Cox, is a worthy addition to the considerable canon of films about the great statesman (the greatest of the British, many say), but it also doesn’t go beyond the best of the many bios that have already hit screens big and small (with stars like Albert Finney, Richard Burton and Brendan Gleeson as the British leader).

While the plot here is framed with flash-forwards of a post-war Churchill (Brian Cox) vacationing at a beach, its ticking clock is the story of the mounting tensions for the mentally and physically challenged, aged British Prime Minister in the days leading up to the momentous Allied D-Day Normandy landings in June 1944. Fearful of repeating his deadly mistake that haunts him from World War I (the horrendous losses for which Churchill was blamed in the devastating Battle of Gallipoli) and exhausted by so many years of battle and turmoil within his own government, Churchill is reluctant to embark on the large-scale campaign, one that the entire war effort hinges upon.

Again, as he did in his controversial decision-making during World War I, he favors the Eastern theatre for a breakthrough and is against so “concentrated” an invasion in France. His war of words with Allied leaders U.S. General Dwight D. Eisenhower (John Slattery as Ike) and his country’s own hero-to-be Field Marshal Bernard Law Montgomery (Julian Wadham as Monty) about a need to hit two fronts provides much for war buffs to chew on.

That Churchill is also plagued by depression and obsessed with his own historical destiny further muddies the waters of acquiescence, even as the invasion, known as Operation Overlord, is only days away. Fearful for the war’s outcome and his own destiny as Prime Minister, Churchill—long in service for his country since the Boer Wars, weapons minister during WWI, leader during the Blitz in the early years of WWII—slowly veers off the rails.

He manifests his shakiness not only in tormenting his young secretary Helen (Ella Purnell), to whom he speedily rattles off dictation only to tear up her copy but, more seriously, by trying to undermine the efforts of Ike and Monty as the landing draws close. To his rescue and ignoring his frequent drinking and chronic dyspeptic nature (and apparently cigar smoke being no issue either) is Churchill’s loyal, reasonable, shrewd wife Clementine (Miranda Richardson, who as “Clemmie” again shows she can do no wrong). Even King George VI (James Purefoy, who was perfection as the cagey money hunk in the finance thriller Denial), in spite of his occasional stutter, brings Churchill around to Ike and Monty’s landing plan, first enticing with a notion of the two joining a vessel in this armada.

But Churchill’s most accepting and ubiquitous ally on this home front is Jan Smuts (Richard Durden), a field marshal who is his ongoing sounding board and who, loosely established here, seems to be an old colleague from Churchill’s turn-of-the-century years fighting in Africa. (Interestingly, a Smuts is given but a few words in Martin Gllbert’s monumental thousand-plus-page biography of Churchill, suggesting that he might be more invention here than historic). And the question arises regarding no mention of the elaborate deception the British perpetrated to turn Nazi attention away from the Normandy beaches.

But in depicting Churchill himself, the filmmakers attempt an intimate and probing portrait and Cox’s performance commands our interest. Notably, the screenwriter Alex Von Tunzelmann is a female historian making her writing debut here.

The script does a good job conveying the strong character, courage, obsession and brilliance at Churchill’s core. The statesman pulls through this war period admirably (his great radio speech to the British at invasion’s end underscores this), as do Clemmie and the Allies, of course. Wars, too, are hearty survivors, but that’s another story (which, coincidentally, is told by the biggest film opening alongside Churchill on June 2).

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