Stars: Brian Cox, Miranda Richardson, John Slattery, James Purefoy
Released: 16th June 2017 (UK)
Reviewer: Marion Donnellier
“When it is all over, what will I be?”
Every country has this big historical figure that even after their death, it feels as if they will last forever. Winston Churchill clearly comes to mind for Britain. From war correspondent in South Africa and Cuba, Cavalry Officer in Sudan and India, Member of Parliament, First Lord of Admiralty in both world wars, Chancellor and finally Prime Minister, Churchill oversaw more than half a century of British history. And yet, the 4 days preceding D-Day could say more about the men than any other period.
Or at least this is what Jonathan Teplitzky (“The Railway Man”, “Burning Man”) has attempted to do in “Churchill”. With a more than memorable performance by Brian Cox, the film follows the men behind the myth moments before the decision that sealed the fate of Europe and led to his greatest victory.
In June 1944, the Allied forces have assembled a massive army on the South coast of Britain in the hopes to re-take Nazi-occupied Europe. General Eisenhower (Slattery), Field Marshal Montgomery (Wadham) and even King George VI are all set for Operation Overlord but one man stands in their way, Prime Minister Winston Churchill. Still haunted by the losses of Gallipoli and clinging to the shadows of his past glory, the hero of the Blitzkrieg refuses to risk the lives of so many.
The outcome of D-Day and the major victory that followed is no surprise to anyone and yet the film will not fail to intrigue you. Mainly because “Churchill” deals much less with the overly shown D-Day victory than it does about Churchill’s fierce opposition to it from the start. Unlike in most historical war drama, battle scenes are scarce and replace by introspective close-ups into the mind of this great Briton.
It starts with a grumpy guilty hero. Churchill wanders the british beach when the waves slowly start blending with the blood of the victims of his past. The dead of Gallipoli are not that far and yet Churchill feels old, obsolete and out of place. He clings to his past victory and failures and refuses to adapt to this new war. No military uniform for him, Churchill likes his traditional formal attire (that even the King does not seem to wear anymore).
Alone in his thoughts, Churchill is either isolated in close-ups or lost in the beautiful and wide landscape shots by David Higgs (“Red Riding: The Year of Our Lord 1983”). The lonely opening and closing beach sequences are particularly moving, giving him a sense of timelessness.
Churchill keeps drinking, moaning and lying on the floor, dying. He does not know where to be so he tries to be everywhere. He even wants to go to the front. His secretary (Purnell) finally gives him the kick he needs in the climactic scene when he realizes the solution was here all along. His people need him.
The film’s greatest strength is the closeness it creates with its main character. Brian Cox’s performance is astounding and not simply because of his uncanny resemblance to the men. Exasperation, irritation, anger, sadness and finally pride, but with constant compassion, Cox masters the emotional roller coaster that were the 96 hours preceding D-Day. At some point we even see him cry, bold move!
But like in most biopic, you run the risk of heavily relying on one performance. Some of the secondary characters, some key to Churchill’s advancement, are sadly, slightly overlooked. A part from the mostly unnecessary presence of the king, his close collaborator, Jan Smuts (Durden), only acts as a simple reminder of both his past glory and present isolation.
The main oversight is probably Clementine (Richardson), his wife. There can be no question to her historical contribution all those years and she is clearly the leading female role. And yet throughout the film, her contributions seem negligible. She is never far, somehow always in the shadow, and he even asks for her help at one point. But does he ever listen? When Churchill finally understands where he is needed, “at home” it is the people that he eventually listens to through his lovely secretary. For his wife, he will simply stop drinking. Together but alone in empty doorways or large deserted ballrooms, perhaps it is Teplitzky’s way to show that despite her influence, Churchill prolific career only happened at the cost of his own family.
Churchill is a man of the people, he is not royalty and no one needs to bow. His people called him back and he will live amongst them forever.
“Churchill” has everything that a good period drama has, beautiful costumes and setting, a moving score by Lorne Balfe (Inception and The Dark Knight) lifted by a compelling performance by Brian Cox, inspiring compassion from beginning to the end. But can we really believe the amazing Churchill is a creation of his own making?