It’s a biographical performance that Albert Finney, Richard Burton and Michael Gambon have all taken on. Here, in Churchill, Sir Winston, named in a 2002 poll as the Greatest Briton of all time, is played with aplomb by Brian Cox. This is however, from the directorial eye of The Railway Man’s Jonathan Teplitzky and the pen of historian Alex von Tunzelmann, a far more destabilising depiction of the icon and well represented caricature. Churchill has both the bull and black dogs of its protagonist’s life at heart but is unfortunately every bit as conflicted and flawed as the man himself.
For a figure who’s symbolic status sent so many to the beaches of northern France it is appropriate that the film opens with Cox’s Churchill adorned by his own armour of suit, hat and pipe, on the sands of southern England. It is an establisher that does, however, set out many of the issues that will snare the film’s progress throughout. As Churchill watches, blood seeps through the water and rolls over the sand along with it. His bowler floats off into the sea with the wind and, directly to the camera, he murmurs ‘I mustn’t let it happen again’. It’s a sequence of images which feel too constructed to be quite as arresting as intended. Too on the nose. Symptomatic, even, of a film too willing to sacrifice feasibility in the course of pressing forward its point.
Churchill runs its course in the war-weary final days before D-Day, the June 1944 last ditch attempt of the Allies to push the Nazis back out of occupied France. For those unaware of Churchill’s initial opposition to the Normandy landings, the PM’s declaration to Field Marshall Montgomery that ‘We must fix this broken plan before it ends in tragedy’ may come as an unsettling shock. This is a Churchill on the wane, a man coming to terms with his being left behind in military stratagem. ‘There comes a time,’ says Danny Webb’s Alan Brooke, ‘when even the greatest of leaders has come as far as he can go’.
Cox’s take carries the familiar wit and warmth of Churchill’s well trodden on-screen personifications but brings too an unlikeability in his belligerence and moods. He drinks, swears, smokes… He is, we are told, a man who eats secretaries for breakfast. He is also, as it here transpires, a man who shouts a lot and repeats himself. Very often he repeats himself whilst shouting too. Were it not for the strength of Cox’s consistently engaging, if occasionally liltingly Scottish, performance, the persistence with which Churchill ‘keeps buggering on’ might have become unbearably dull. As it is, bearable dullness does plague its centre stretches. Certainly the script lacks a degree of subtlety enough to dig beneath the surface and is flatly written in a style that does rather grate. ‘I’m fine’ Churchill bellows in one scene, ‘it’s my duty’ he hollers in another.
Von Tunzelmann is no stranger to the conflicting worlds of film fantasy and realism, having written extensively on their divergences. It does, thus, feel odd that her script is one that would probably not actually pass the historian’s own criteria for success. You don’t have to be an expert on the subject, for instance, to question the plausibility of Churchill being quite so obstinate in attempting to call off the invasion right up until the eleventh hour and even less that the Prime Minister would only have been shown plans mere days before for an attack months in the planning. In one ludicrous scene, Churchill crouches by his bed and cries out to the heavens in prayer, as though emulating Shakespeare’s King Lear, ‘Let lightning flash, let thunder crash and below’. It’s his bid to ask God to rain off the operation and is utterly surreal. That said, sometimes the truth can prove even more bizarre than the fiction and it was certainly the case that Churchill intended to accompany the troops to the beaches during the attack. It was only the King’s statement that he would join too that convinced him to step down.
It seems, due to production pressures, that Von Tunzelmann has been forced to condense months of conflict into the space of a week for dramatic effect. Unfortunately, so unbelievable is the resultant scenario that it is one which never proves effectively dramatic in its realisation. To devote so much of the film’s focus to the question of whether D-Day will happen lacks much needed jeopardy because it so obviously did happen. It is only in the third and final act that the film begins to fully explore the depths of the human being behind the persona in an emotionally satisfying way. As Clementine Churchill, Winston’s wife and apologist, Miranda Richardson is a terrific foil for Cox and a greater exploration of their relationship throughout would have been entirely welcome.