Churchill

Review by Phil Concannon @Phil_on_Film

Directed by

Jonathan Teplitzky

Starring

Brian Cox John Slattery Julian Wadham

Anticipation.

The first of 2017’s two Churchill biopics. Can it tell us anything new?

Enjoyment.

Some intriguing angles, but it all feels very conventional.

In Retrospect.

Two fingers up.

It’s two fingers up for this cosy and conventional biopic of the much vaunted British PM.

Churchill. The stark one-word title immediately brings an iconic image to mind. A bulldog-like character resting on a cane, a Homburg hat on his head, a cigar jutting out from his mouth, his hand raised in a victorious two-fingered salute. It’s a figure so familiar we might feel we know everything there is to know about the man already, not least because Brian Cox’s decent impersonation is just the latest in a seemingly inexhaustible run of TV and film portrayals.

Director Jonathan Teplitzky makes much use of this iconography in Churchill, often shooting Cox in profile or as a distinctive silhouette, but Alex von Tunzelmann’s screenplay attempts to dig beneath the surface and to reveal different aspects of the man during one of the turning points of World War Two.

Cox’s Churchill is capricious, obstinate, prone to rages and depression, and far from the heroic public figure that led the country through the Blitz four years earlier. In fact, those around the Prime Minister see him as more of a thorn in their side, and a potential liability with the planning for Operation Overlord entering its final stages. In the film’s opening scene we see the reason for his indecision: as Churchill walks on the beach, the water around his feet appears to be awash with blood, a reminder of the young men who were sent to their deaths in the Great War less than 30 years earlier.

Churchill is still scarred by these losses and the fear of being responsible for a similar massacre is behind his hesitancy to proceed with the D-Day landings, but the likes of Eisenhower (John Slattery) and Montgomery (Julian Wadham) are determined to push forward with the plan against his objections. “If we can just make him feel part of it,” one military leader suggests, as if he’s trying to placate a temperamental toddler.

This effort to explore Churchill’s insecurities and deficiencies is laudable, but the ticking-clock nature of the script means complexity is often circumvented for narrative expediency. Other characters in the film seem to exist solely to push him towards his redemptive finale, such as James Purefoy’s King George VI, the one man to whom Churchill shows deference, or Ella Purnell as a meek secretary whose emotional outburst rouses him to action.

Although Teplitzky attempts a few directorial flourishes (such as an aggravating habit of starting scenes in a blur before bringing the image into focus), Churchill is blandly efficient in its construction, and the film’s closing text, informing us that the Allies went on to win the War and Winston Churchill is often regarded as the greatest Briton of all time, feels indicative of the safe, pandering tone that eventually envelops the picture.

The frustrating thing is that there is a much more interesting story right there under the filmmakers’ noses, just waiting to be opened up. As Winston’s wife Clementine, Miranda Richardson superbly expresses the frustration and weariness of a woman who has spent a lifetime walking in her husband’s shadow, reining in his excesses and cleaning up his mess, and trying to do so with unflagging grace and good humour.

“I’ve learned to live around your margins,” she tells him, and one wonders if a shift of focus might have distinguished this engaging but ultimately forgettable biopic, and elevated it into something genuinely revelatory. Perhaps it could have been called The Churchills?

Published 13 Jun 2017

Tags: Brian Cox Winston Churchill

Anticipation.

The first of 2017’s two Churchill biopics. Can it tell us anything new?

Enjoyment.

Some intriguing angles, but it all feels very conventional.

In Retrospect.

Two fingers up.

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