Review by Phil Concannon @Phil_on_Film

Directed by

Jonathan Teplitzky


Brian Cox John Slattery Julian Wadham


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


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


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


Some intriguing angles, but it all feels very conventional.

In Retrospect.

Two fingers up.

Related Reviews

In praise of Bob Roberts – the political satire that got it spot on

By Anastasia Miari

The events of Tim Robbins’ 1992 directorial debut feel scarily prophetic when viewed today.

Viceroy’s House

By David Jenkins

The dramatic story of Partition in India is rendered as a glossy, light comedy in this underwhelming effort from Gurinder Chadha.


Is Hot Fuzz the ultimate anti-Brexit film?

By David Jenkins

Viewed today, Edgar Wright’s comic satire of small town English attitudes feels scarily prescient.

What are you looking for?

Little White Lies Logo

About Little White Lies

Little White Lies was established in 2005 as a bi-monthly print magazine committed to championing great movies and the talented people who make them. Combining cutting-edge design, illustration and journalism, we’ve been described as being “at the vanguard of the independent publishing movement.” Our reviews feature a unique tripartite ranking system that captures the different aspects of the movie-going experience. We believe in Truth & Movies.



Sign up to our newsletter to hear more from team LWLies