Film Review: ‘Churchill’

Brian Cox plays Winston Churchill with blustery conviction in a decent, prosaic drama about the wartime lesson he had to learn.

Jonathan Teplitzky
Brian Cox, Miranda Richardson, John Slattery, Ella Purnell, Julian Wadham, Richard Durden, James Purefoy, Danny Webb, Jonathan Aris, Angela Costello.
Release Date:
Jun 2, 2017

Official Site: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt2674454/

In a historical biopic, nothing can shed light on a legendary figure — or, at least, knock him off his plaster-saint pedestal — quite like being depicted as a stooge, a bully, and a fool. In “Churchill,” a drama that unfolds during the 96 hours leading up to D-Day, Brian Cox plays Winston Churchill with roaring conviction, all fire and bluster and lion-of-Britain piss and vinegar. Yet for most of the film, he isn’t a valiant leader charting a course toward victory — he’s the one man standing in the way of it.

Churchill, the Prime Minister of Britain, is absolutely sure that the massive plan code-named Operation Overlord, which is set to kick off on June 6, 1944, with 250,000 Allied troops storming the beaches of Normandy, is a disaster in the making. He’s convinced that it will result not only in massive casualties, but in the Allied forces losing the war. “Churchill” is a small, watchable, rather prosaic backroom docudrama about how Churchill, during that four-day countdown, fought the plan with everything he had, only to finally submit to the idea that he was on the wrong side of history.

Directed by Jonathan Teplitzky in a visually functional, destined-for-VOD way, “Churchill” opens with images of Winston walking along the shore, fully clothed (he looks, if possible, like even less of a beach person than Nixon), imagining that the tides washing up around him are surging with blood. That’s the kind of movie metaphor that announces itself with too much fanfare — we get it, he’s got the horror of war on his guilty conscience — and “Churchill” has the slipshod feel of a film that has taken some rather drastic historical liberties. It deals with the moral reticence that Churchill felt over a far more extended period and compresses it into a scant few days.

Popular on Variety

The Churchill we meet has led Britain through the war, yet he’s at the end of his tether. A whiskey-swilling lush, a pedant, and a brilliant if overly obsessive wordsmith, he is woken up at noon on the floor of his office, where he’s presumably recovering from a bender. It’s there that he begins to work out the final draft of a speech, hemming and hawing over whether to use the word “trials” or “tribulations.” He is then driven to a mansion outside London for a summit meeting with Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower (John Slattery), the supreme commander of the U.S. and Allied forces, and Field Marshall Bernard Montgomery (Julian Wadham), the British commander of the Allied ground troops, who are finalizing the plans for D-Day.

As Churchill draws his line in the sand, voicing his wrathful objection to what he considers an inhumane military plan, it’s clear that the speech he was fussing over was this one — a “spontaneous” plea for restraint delivered in the King’s English. Churchill’s belief that the Normandy invasion will turn out to be a hellish apocalypse of wasted carnage — he’s right, of course, about everything but the wasted part — is based on his experience of World War I, in which he proved his bravery on the ground and observed, close up, the meat-grinder horror of trench warfare. The gruesome madness of WWI was stamped forever on his reputation when he championed what turned out to be the disastrous Gallipoli campaign, a stain he’s been compensating for ever since.

Churchill was 69 years old when the events leading up to D-Day took place, and that’s how old Brian Cox was when filming commenced last year on “Churchill.” Cox has always had a brash energy, but he looks right for the part now, his pale face creased with furrows and pockets that he wears like fleshy armor. Chomping on an oversize cigar that he wields like a weapon, the actor slithers inside Churchill’s heavy, sagging flesh and morose embattled fury. He does a fantastic impersonation of Churchill’s stentorian British tones, and he uses one classic Cox-ism that works perfectly, his mouth dropping open in a gape of woe, almost as if that mouth was an open wound.

In Winston’s mind, the plan for D-Day is so wrongheaded that it’s almost a tautology: younger heads than his blindly repeating the tragedy of the last war. It never occurs to him that he’s the one fighting the last war — the quintessential military mistake. John Slattery isn’t the first actor I would have thought of to cast as Dwight D. Eisenhower, but sporting a comb-over and an air of unironic urgency, he does a fine job, investing the role with the quiet command it requires. Ike, having registered Churchill’s moral objections to D-Day, wastes no time reading him the riot act, and letting him know that the plan is going forward. This leaves Winston looking like an executive who’s been kicked upstairs. He still thinks of himself as the fearless leader who led Britain through the Blitz, but what he’s really fighting is the new world order. It’s America’s war now — he just lives in it.

These scenes have a brittle brinksmanship that’s entertaining and, in their way, impactful. Churchill’s motivation, the movie implies, isn’t as high-minded as it sounds. He’s caught up in the mythology of himself as England’s savior. He grieves at the prospect of young men going to their deaths — but what, exactly, is his alternate plan? “Churchill” suggests that Winston Churchill, while one of the most inspirational political leaders of the 20th century, may have gone through a period when he was too civilized to fully grasp the savage relentlessness necessary to defeat an enemy as extreme as Adolf Hitler.

Then again, nearly everyone around him understands it. “Churchill” is a lively but repetitive movie, in which Churchill, in scene after scene, keeps pushing the same ponderous “compassionate” argument about the grand lesson of World War I. If you imagine the movie as a one-man show (which Cox would be the perfect actor for), that same argument could have been threaded right through it, with more insight and digression. There are flickers of testy drama in the scenes between Winston and his wife, Clementine, played by Miranda Richardson with snappish fortitude. “Do you want to be coddled, Winston?” she says. “Don’t complain when someone tells you the truth.” She’s got his number — that he has greatness in him, but that he’s also a big baby clinging to the past.

Yet even her tough love isn’t enough. Winston has to keep hearing the lesson, over and over, until he wakes up to it. He hears it from Ike, from Monty, from King George VI (James Purefoy), from his trusted Boer military colleague Jan Smuts (Richard Durden), and even from his worshipful assistant (Ella Purnell), whose fiancée is set to be on the front lines of D-Day. They all understand what Winston doesn’t: that he’s a timeless statesman, but that the time for him to be a warrior has passed. “Churchill” makes a serviceable movie out of the minor drama of that moment.

Film Review: 'Churchill'

Reviewed on-line, New York, May 28, 2017. MPAA Rating: PG. Running time: 105 MIN.

Production: A Cohen Media Group release of a Silver Reel, Alba/Chruthachail, Salon production, in association with Tempo Productions, Lipsync Productions, Embankment Films, Creative Scotland, Head Gear Films, Metrol Technology. Producers: Claudia Bluemhuber, Nick Taussig, Piers Tempest, Paul Van Carter. Executive producers: Jo Bamford, Ian Berg, Hugo Grambar, Tim Halsam, Phil Hunt, Ian Hutchinson, Lisa Clarkson Milillo, Michael Milillo, Christopher Reynolds, Compton Ross, Ronnell Shaw.

Crew: Director: Jonathan Teplitzky. Screenplay: Alex von Tunzelmann. Camera (color, widescreen): David Higgs, Editor: Chris Gill.

With: Brian Cox, Miranda Richardson, John Slattery, Ella Purnell, Julian Wadham, Richard Durden, James Purefoy, Danny Webb, Jonathan Aris, Angela Costello.

More Film

  • (center) George MacKay as Schofield in

    '1917,' 'Succession' Among Top PGA Award Winners

    “1917” continued its string of major awards season wins on Saturday night, earning the Producers Guild of America award for best picture. Coupled with its win for best picture, drama at the Golden Globes, the WWI movie is officially the front runner for Oscar’s top prize. “It’s a film that is a tribute to all [...]

  • Bong Joon Ho, Jane Rosenthal, David

    Netflix Praised by 'The Irishman,' 'Marriage Story' Filmmakers at Producers Guild Panel

    Streaming giant Netflix received strong support from filmmakers behind “The Irishman” and “Marriage Story” at the Producers Guild of America’s nominees panel on Saturday at the Skirball Cultural Center in Los Angeles. Jane Rosenthal, one of “The Irishman” producers, said Netflix embraced the vision that she and Martin Scorsese had for the $170 million film. [...]

  • Gabriel Harel on MyFFF ‘The Night

    Gabriel Harel Discusses Dystopic Parable ‘The Night of the Plastic Bags’

    With his first short film, the animated “Yùl and the Snake,” Gabriel Harel won Europe’s Cartoon d’Or for the continent’s best animated short film, given at the 2016 Cartoon Forum in Toulouse. Now, Harel’s awaited sophomore effort, the animated “The Night of the Plastic Bags,” competes at UniFrance’s MyFrenchFilmFestival, and is available on a swathe [...]

  • MyFrenchFilmFestival: Profiling Benjamin Crotty’s Short ‘Nicolas

    ‘The Glorious Acceptance of Nicolas Chauvin’: Nationalism Wrapped in Charisma

    Winner of Locarno’s Signs of Life section, Benjamin Crotty’s “The Glorious Acceptance of Nicolas Chauvin” has enjoyed more than 12 months of festival success and critical acclaim as it reaches the end of its festival run at UniFrance’s MyFrenchFilmFestival. A modern take on one of France’s most influential yet widely unknown characters, the film headlines [...]

  • Alexander Ludwig

    Alexander Ludwig on Sharing his Recovery Journey, Playing the 'Bad Boys' Tech Guy

    With his towering height and stature, Alexander Ludwig looks every bit the action star, first appearing as Cato in “The Hunger Games,” and more recently as fierce Norse Viking chief Bjorn Ironside on History Channel’s “Vikings” and in “Bad Boys for Life,” the third installment of the “Bad Boys” franchise, with Will Smith and Martin [...]

  • Will Smith and Martin Lawrence star

    Box Office: 'Bad Boys for Life' Scores Big With $66 Million Launch

    “Bad Boys for Life” is showing plenty of power at the North American box office with an impressive  launch of around $66 million at 3,740 venues over the four-day holiday weekend. Sony’s sequel to 1995’s “Bad Boys” and 2003’s “Bad Boys II” far exceeded the studio’s pre-release forecasts of a $38 million weekend. The film, [...]

  • A Bump Along the Way Movie

    'A Bump Along the Way': Film Review

    While “Derry Girls” continues to be the last word in young, raucous female rebellion on the Emerald Isle, “A Bump Along the Way” has a little something to add. Sin the same Northern Irish city as the hit Netflix sitcom, but shedding the ’90s nostalgia for the Snapchat age, Shelly Love’s appealing, unassuming debut feature [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content