Director: Jonathan Teplitzky
Cast: Brian Cox, Miranda Richardson, John Slattery, Ella Purnell, Julian Wadham, Richard Durden, James Purefoy
MPAA Rating: (for thematic elements, brief war images, historical smoking throughout, and some language)
Running Time: 1:38
Release Date: 6/2/17 (limited)
Review by Mark Dujsik | June 1, 2017
Rarely is an actor more perfectly suited for a role than the case of Brian Cox playing Winston Churchill in Churchill. It's the sort of performance that once would have been marketed with a declarative statement: Instead of "Brian Cox as Winston Churchill," it would be proclaimed that "Brian Cox is Winston Churchill." This is a transformative performance in a movie that, unfortunately, doesn't come close to matching it.
The film is set in the days leading up to the D-Day invasion of Normandy. The Allied forces, led by Dwight Eisenhower (John Slattery), are in charge of the planning and execution. Churchill, who helped lead the British war effort during the First World War, believes he is a key player in the current fighting against the Axis powers. A meeting between himself, the Allied military command, and King George VI (James Purefoy) proves otherwise.
Still working under the assumption that war hasn't changed in 30 years, Churchill only sees potential disaster and slaughter in sending so many soldiers to 50 miles of occupied, well-fortified coastline in the largest operation of combined land, air, and sea forces ever imagined. Churchill's plan is to spread out the attack. Eisenhower and every other commander believe it is both too late for a change in the plan and foolish to do it Churchill's way.
They're polite in front of the king, but behind the scenes, Eisenhower essentially tells Churchill—in no kind words—that his input is no longer required or wanted. Bernard Montgomery, who's in charge of all Allied ground forces for the Normandy campaign, drops words such as doubt and treachery to describe Churchill's concerns.
The entirety of the movie takes place within this small window of Churchill's life, when he is quite the opposite of the man we traditionally imagine he was. He is no longer the decisive, emboldening leader of the Blitz, who rallied the morale of the people of the United Kingdom against daily bombing runs from the Germans. He is not the politician who joined with his Allied counterparts to display solidarity against the Axis powers.
He is a man alone, unwanted, and filled with self-doubt. He drinks too much, passes out on the floor of his bedroom surrounded by papers (as well as an empty tumbler and an ashtray with one of his trademark cigars), and erupts in fits of rage against the smallest transgression from one of his underlings (Because he can't hold sway over the men of power whom he sees as his equals, he instead rails against his personal secretary, played by Ella Purnell, for single-spacing a letter). This Churchill is powerless. He knows that he is, too, and the growing realization leads him to a state of depression.
The key to Cox's performance is, appropriately, the fact of Churchill himself as a performer. After a nightmare of a prologue in which the man sees a blood-filled sea (and symbolically loses his hat), the movie opens with Churchill preparing the wording of a speech. We expect it to be a public affair, but instead, it's a canned response he's readying to give to the Allied commanders when they inevitability give him pushback on his strategy to spread out the D-Day operation. He knows the power of words delivered with some circumstance and plenty of pomp.
If there's a slight failing to Cox's performance here, it's in that devotion to the idea of Churchill as an actor in all the dealings of his life. There are times, for example, that his concern for the ordinary soldier, asked to risk life and limb for a mission that he has a political interest in opposing, comes across as part of his strategy. Ultimately, this isn't the case, as the movie establishes at the start and, later, solidifies in a private moment with his wife Clementine (Miranda Richardson), who is thinking of leaving her husband on account of his inattention toward her.
Of course, it's possible that the character can be both concerned with the welfare of the soldiers and using their welfare as a pawn in his political strategy. The issue, then, may not be with Cox's performance, which allows for and taps into such complexities. It's likely a problem of a screenplay (written by Alex von Tunzelmann) that doesn't trust our ability to sympathize with a character who is capable of such contradictory aims and less-than-pure motives.
The movie's trajectory helps to confirm that thought. There's room for interpretation of Churchill's intentions and goals throughout the first two acts, which allow him to show his arrogance and his inability to let go of the fight, between himself and the Allied commanders, over whose strategy will be used in the operation. The third act undercuts Cox and director Jonathan Teplitzky's abilities to show us the kind of man that Churchill is in this particular moment of his life. Characters begin repeatedly to tell us everything about the man that we have already discerned.
Since all of this stated revelation comes at the end, it doesn't work dramatically. Since we already know the nature of the man because we have seen it revealed through Churchill's actions, the third act doesn't work as character study, either. In the end, the successes of Churchill are undone by the fact that the movie doesn't trust the audience, Cox's performance, or the character.
Copyright © 2017 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.
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