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A Great Performance Can’t Redeem “Churchill”

By Noah Gittell

In troubling times, we crave stories of brave leaders and courageous politicians. Perhaps that’s why there are two films about Winston Churchill this year, the upcoming “Darkest Hour,” and Oscar hopeful starring Gary Oldman and directed by Joe Wright, and the less-prestigious “Churchill,” in theaters now.

Unfortunately, the leadership depicted in “Churchill” never feels real enough to be compelling or inspiring. The film starts strong but quickly devolves into hagiography, with obvious metaphors and scene-chewing performances that feel more appropriate for the stage than the subtle confines of the screen (especially when you consider the film’s limited release, meaning most will see it on their TV, laptop, or tablet).

Its most insightful depiction of England’s famous prime minister comes in its opening scenes. Churchill (Brian Cox) awakens from a drunken slumber, gets dressed, and begins rehearsing a speech in front of a mirror. He labors over a word choice. Should he refer to the “trials” of England’s brave troops or their “tribulations”? He then travels to a private meeting with General Eisenhower (a badly miscast John Slattery) and King George VI (James Purefoy) to discuss Operation Overlord, or what history called the D-Day landing. He strenuously opposes the operation, asking his King to consider the “trials and tribulations” his troops have gone through. Turns out all that preparation was for an audience of one.

Churchill’s pleas go unheeded, and the operation is set to commence in four days. Director Jonathan Teplitzsky frames his story as a countdown, frequently reminding the audience of the time limits, while Churchill scrambles to stop what he perceives as a risky strategy. Apparently, there is much debate over the accuracy of this film’s depiction. To the public, Churchill was a staunch supporter of the D-Day operation, and historians have already taken issues with Teplitzky’s version of the story. 

It’s a good thing that the film isn’t particularly interested in its politics. Instead, it’s a story of aging and obsolescence. Despite his great intelligence, political prowess, and military experience, Churchill finds himself beset on all sides by doubters and critics. Eisenhower treats him like a relic, and even his wife (Miranda Richardson) undermines him. Churchill responds by raging against the dying of the light. He decides that he and the King will physically lead the men into battle, but the King, in a scene sporting bizarrely romantic overtones, refuses. “The anxiety of the coming days would be greatly increased,” he tells him in a soft, soulful voice, “if there were even the slightest chance of losing you.”

The one thing the film gets right is the thing it absolutely must: Cox is perfect as Churchill. The veteran British actor finds the universal humanity in the legendary figure, depicting Churchill simply as a man grappling with the anxieties of old age. In his most wounded moments, Cox shows the dignity and grace in his pain. When enraged, we see the pain his anger is masking. It’s a performance that deserves a better film, or perhaps a one-man show. I could see Cox commanding our attention on his own for two hours, much like Philip Baker Hall did as Richard Nixon in Robert Altman’s brilliant “Secret Honor”.
But the film around Cox is just not up to snuff. As the main antagonist, Slattery can’t hide his natural smarminess, or rather he has nothing to replace it with. Richardson acquits herself well in the underwritten role of the put-upon wife of the self-involved politician, but she has sadly little to do but support her man, both the character and the actor.

It’s a disappointing but not expected entry in Teplitzky’s filmography. The director of “The Railway Man” certainly has a niche: films that look and sound like prestige pictures but don’t have the story or narrative competence to measure up. In the end, the film is as much a constraint on Churchill and his legacy as his real-world antagonists were. “You’re the most powerful man in the world,” King George tells him at one point,” and you’re not allowed to do anything at all.” Maybe in a better film he would have been.

My Rating: Skip it altogether


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