Churchill movie review: Brian Cox is superb as an embattled Churchill in this solid drama
Winston Churchill is the great Briton who never goes out of fashion, and 52 years after his death, the redoubtable warrior politician is popping up all over the place. Last year John Lithgow played him with aplomb in Netflix's mini-series The Crown; later this year Gary Oldman will play the great man at his decisive and inspiring best in Darkest Hour; and meanwhile we have this finely focused historical drama, which paints Churchill in a slightly less flattering light.
In the early 1940s, Churchill inspired an entire nation to rally when all hope seemed lost, guided them through the unspeakable horrors of Nazi air bombardment, and worked behind the scenes with Franklin Delano Roosevelt to engineer America's entry to the war. But by 1944, everything had changed. Following the invasion of Italy, the military had taken over: generals like Eisenhower, Montgomery and Brooke were calling the shots, and as Allied land forces prepared for the great gamble of D-Day, Winston (Brian Cox) found himself sidelined.
As usual, he hadn't helped matters by fulminating behind the scenes, behaving like a spoilt child and telling anyone who would listen that the D-Day plan was a wild folly, doomed to bloody failure. His opposition, though, was emotional rather than intellectual, and all too understandable. During World War I, when a young and impetuous Churchill was serving as First Lord of the Admiralty, he'd overseen the Gallipoli sea landings, part of a disastrous attempt to gain a foothold in the Dardanelles which resulted in the loss of up to 100,000 Allied lives.
Churchill was so traumatised by the event, that he quit his post, joined the army and got a posting to the Western Front. Now, almost 30 years later, he felt that similar carnage was about to be unleashed on the beaches of northern France: he fantasised that the war could be won by thrusting north and east from the top of Italy, and refused to accept that a land invasion of France was crucial to defeating the Third Reich.
Whenever Winston didn't get his way, tantrums ensued, and in Churchill, they come thick and fast. Barking out his subordinates, berating his sainted wife Clemmie (Miranda Richardson), and interfering in troop preparations along the south coast, the snubbed prime minister does all he can to buck the consensus and reassert his failing authority. While doing so, he continues his daily health regime of champagne, cigars and brandy, but the pressure is beginning to tell.
Written by Alex von Tunzelmann, and directed by Jonathan Teplitzky, Churchill can be admired, I suppose, for choosing such a narrow focus, and daring to catch a national hero at his lowest ebb. Churchill suffered with depression throughout his life, and that trait is dealt with briefly here: his wife's face drops when she sees another bleak spell might be coming, and summons help to try and coax him out of his tailspin.
His pettiness is even less attractive, and only Clemmie stands any chance of keeping his bullying excesses in check.
Richardson is perfectly fine as Mrs C, and posters for the film suggest her crucial role in her husband's success will be central to this story. But it's not, because only Winston is written in three dimensions, and Clemmie remains ethereal, ghostly.
The same is true for the likes of Ike (John Slattery) and Monty (Julian Wadham), who fume in the background but never seem quite real. James Purefoy, though slightly miscast as George VI, shares the film's best scene, as the diffident monarch quietly dissuades Churchill from his plan to sail into battle with the troops on D-Day.
And this worthy, solidly made drama would remain frustratingly two-dimensional were it not for Brian Cox. At first, one is slightly distracted by the fact that he doesn't really look like Churchill: he lacks his bulldog jowls, his bulk. But as the film proceeds, he becomes him: his voice deepens, his body seems to puff out, till all you can see is Winston.
Churchill (PG, 98mins)
Also out this week: Movie reviews: Cardboard Gangsters, Gifted, Whitney: Can I Be Me?
Films coming soon...
Transformers: The Last Knight (Mark Wahlberg, Josh Duhamel); Hampstead (Diane Keaton, Brendan Gleeson); Twice Shy (Ardal O'Hanlon, Pat Shortt); Slack Bay (Juliette Binoche, Fabrice Luchini): From the Land of the Moon (Marion Cotillard).