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CHURCHILL (2017) review

June 3, 2017

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written by: Alex von Tunzelmann
produced by: Nick Taussig, Paul Van Carter, Piers Tempest & Claudia Bluemhuber
directed by: Jonathan Teplitzky
rated: PG (for thematic elements, brief war images, historical smoking throughout, and some language)
runtime: 92 min.
U.S. release date: June 2, 2017 (limited)

 

If you know the name, but feel a little fuzzy on who Winston Churchill was, it’s a good time to be a film enthusiast because there are two biopics coming out this year on the two-time British Prime Minister, Minister of Defense. In the fall, we’ll see Gary Oldman play the Minister of Defense in Joe Wright’s “The Darkest Hour” (just in time for award season), but in the meantime, here’s Brian Cox as the man usually considered “the greatest Briton of all time” – at least that’s what it says before the end credits of character-centric drama from director Jonathan Teplitsky (“The Railway Man”) aptly-titled, “Churchill”. I never thought I would say this, because I’m always looking for historical biopics to reveal more than is known about notable figures, but I found “Churchill” to be an overreaching affair that tries way to hard to unnecessarily humanize this iconic wartime political figure.

The film opens and closes with Churchill standing on a cloudy shoreline, which is fitting since the story here is basically what transpired leading up to D-Day. Blood is mixed with the seafoam that moves in with the tide, providing us with obvious symbolism as well as internal reflection for the character. Then we realize it’s a dream and we see a groggy Churchill woken up and driven to a very important meeting with Allied Forces Commander Dwight D. Eisenhower (John Slattery), Britain’s General Montgomery (Julian Wadham) and a stuttering King George VI (James Purefoy), to confirm the Allied Forces plans for what we be the infamous seaborne invasion along the German-occupied northwestern coast of France. It’s during this meeting that we see Churchill vocalize his opposition to the invasion plan already in motion, confusing the other decision makers involved.

 

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The goal of “Churchill” is to examine the ninety-six hours leading up to June 6th, 1944, when the good guys “stormed the beach at Normandy” (to quote a line from “Stand By Me”) with the title character distraught with the idea of sending thousands of young men to their inevitable death. This depiction of the Prime Minister is of an exhausted man, haunted by his mistakes from World War I at the Battle of Gallipoli in 1915 (which saw half a million soldiers die). He’s troubled with the emotional toll of these decisions, crippled with depression and concerned with how history will look back on his legacy. In no way am I an expert of these specific events in history, but I had a hard time believing Churchill would be this all over the place, so close to their tactical military move known as “Operation Overlord”.

Screenwriter Alex von Tunzelman is a war historian, so she knows more than I do about Churchill and this period, but that doesn’t mean what she wrote made it easy to believe that this reputedly stalwart figure would be this troubled and unhinged. Although Cox’s performance is quite transformative, he spends much of the film with a furrowed brow, grunting through his cigar, unloaded his short temper on anyone around him or crying. There may be some very interesting details surrounding the planning of D-Day, like how the leaders were relying heavily on the weather to be just right. This leads to a scene of Churchill kneeling next to his bed in prayer, crying out to God for heavy winds and a torrential downpour.  It’s one of many scenes that seem like an overly theatrical monologue, one that borders overacting.

With all that Churchill has going on, it seems overboard to throw in moments where he feels disrespected or overlooked, writing this great leader as an over-sensitive, easily-flustered old man. At one point, King George has to set Churchill straight, politely reminding him of his duty to inspire those left behind and boost the morale of the public, when Churchill is convinced he has to be alongside the boy on the boats. I really have my doubts that the real Churchill would feel this way this late in his career.

 

 

 

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Both Churchill and Cox receive valuable support from devoted wife, Clementine Churchill, wonderfully played by the underrated Miranda Richardson. She remains by her husband’s side with great honesty and shrewdness, redirecting him with love and truthfulness. Like “The Theory of Everything”, where Felicity Jones’ Jane Hawking turns out to be a more interesting performance/character than the Oscar-winning turn from Eddie Redmayne. Less is more, folks. Richardson gradually builds this performance, deftly balancing patience and frustration for her husband, someone who’s become distant during the war. There’s a particular heart-to-heart scene between Cox and Richardson on a stairwell, where “Clemmie” gently confronts “Winn” with a dose of sobering reality, holding a mirror of truth to his volatile behavior and the state of their relationship – it turns out being the film’s best scenes thanks to Richardson.

Another great scene involves yet another female character figuratively waking a Churchill out of his depression funk. It takes place in Churchill’s bedroom, where Field Marshall Jan Smuts (Richard Durden) is attempting to write Churchill’s rousing speech of encouragement that’ll be broadcast for all just before D-Day, which is being dictated by new secretary (Ella Purnell, “Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children”). Helen has suffered the brunt of Churchill’s beratings throughout the film and when he explodes in this scene, as he details all the young men who’ll be sent to their deaths, she lets him have it in a surprisingly blunt manner. Purnell is great at being both nervous and bold here, in a pivotal moment that draws Churchill out of his self-focus, providing him with a personal connection to the soldiers on those nearing that shores of Normandy.

Historians have argued how much Churchill’s struggles with depression, feelings of being sidelined by the Americans, and traumatic memories of World War I affected his opinion of D-Day. But “Churchill” is so a little too obsessed with showing him at his petulant, unseemly, self-defeating worst – something that Cox is committed to throughout – yet it feels less like an examination of a complex man under enormous pressure than a picture of an arrogant old goat ready to be put out to pasture.

 

 

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RATING: **

 

 

 

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