The wartime bio-drama “Churchill” ends with a sentence stating that its subject, two-time British Prime Minister Winston Churchill, is usually considered “the greatest Briton of all time.”
If you knew nothing of that small island’s looming lion of politics and war morale, however, you might be shocked at that assessment after watching “Churchill,” which stars Brian Cox in the title role. That’s because this snapshot of the man in the days before D-Day mostly portrays him as a doddering, foul-tempered, and fearful leader on the brink of losing it.
Director Jonathan Teplitsky (“The Railway Man”) and screenwriter-historian Alex von Tunselmann have taken an intriguing footnote of Churchill’s World War II — that he initially opposed the opening of the Second Front on the French coast by a massive Allied force — and turned it into an off-putting hybrid of Great-Man biopic and crisis-of-will psychodrama. It’s material that seems better suited to the intimacy of a theater setting than a movie that wants the patriotic sweep of nostalgic iconography (caressing shots of his cane, Homburg hat, cigar and Cox’s commanding jowls) while also pulling back the curtain on a legendary statesman’s darkest thoughts.
Dreamlike imagery sets the stage for Churchill’s state of mind, as the movie opens with him alone on a beach, confronted with an incoming tide of water and blood, surrounded by bodies, and muttering that he “mustn’t let it happen again.” (He’s referring to the Gallipoli campaign of 1915 that he championed at the time, which saw half a million soldiers perish in defeat.) With three days to go until “Operation Overlord” commences on June 6, 1944, Churchill is on England’s southern coast with the Allied forces’ high command nearby, awaiting the go-ahead to send troops.
In a meeting with U.S. General Eisenhower (John Slattery) and his own Field Marshal Montgomery (Julian Wadham, “The Iron Lady”), Churchill — ever-mindful of his legacy — makes his reservations known: the casualty estimate is too high, and beach landings are tragedies in waiting. Eisenhower, played by Slattery as if he could barely contain an eyeroll, tries to reassure him that fighting has changed in 30 years and implies that Churchill is trying to win the last war rather than the current one.
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Fuming at perceived disrespect for his combat knowledge and leadership skills, Churchill insists new plans be drawn up, while his darkening mood finds him needlessly berating a new secretary (Ella Purnell, “Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children”), irritating his long-suffering wife Clemmie (Miranda Richardson), drinking more, and, in a regrettably overwrought scene, praying at his bedside for torrential rains and winds so that the operation can be postponed.
Convinced he should at least be where the action is — on the boats storming the coast — if he’s going to send thousands of men to their deaths, he is quickly disabused of this by King George (James Purefoy), who politely reminds him that his duty is to be alive back home and boost the morale of the public.
Famously, Churchill thought Italy was the way to defeating Germany, what he called Europe’s “soft underbelly.” This movie, on the other hand, is all about Churchill’s weak spots, the cracks in his armor which, when liberally extrapolated in von Tunselmann’s speculative screenplay, are like a race-against-time scenario gone mad: a legitimately heroic figure depicted as being desperate to stop the one operation we all know turned the tide of the war.
Historians have argued how much Churchill’s struggles with depression, feelings of being sidelined by the Americans, and traumatic memories of World War I affected his opinion of D-Day. Needless to say, they were complicated in private, rah-rah in public. But “Churchill” is so relentless in showing him at his petulant, unseemly, self-defeating worst — Cox is certainly committed on that front — that it feels less like an examination of a complex man under enormous pressure than a picture of an arrogant coot ready to be put out to pasture.
Until his wife predictably talks sense into him, that is (complete with handy face slap), and his barked-at secretary shames him with her common-person common sense. These types of trite “buck up, you old fool, and be great” scenes, while capably handled by the actors, are hardly befitting a movie aiming to be a window into the swirl of fortitude and doubt that accompanies any momentous decision.
There’s a glimmer of a better movie in Richardson’s and Cox’s scenes, which suggest a thorny marriage that barely survived its low points, but it’s inevitably undercut by Teplitsky’s fondness for slo-mo memorializing, music overuse, and a simplistic pace that wants to brush away all the negativity with a well-timed come-to-Jesus moment, and a rousing radio speech. Although it’s commendable that any biopic would take the moment-in-time approach to illuminating a well-documented historical personage, “Churchill” disappoints by giving its subject the disease-of-the-week treatment.