A promising film is struggling to escape Churchill, which follows British Prime Minister Winston Churchill (Brian Cox) as he wrestles with the forthcoming Battle of Normandy, the Allied Forces’ pivotal attempt to wrest Western Europe from German forces during World War II. Haunted by his experiences in WWI, mainly his involvement in the disastrous and staggeringly violent Gallipoli campaign, Churchill has trouble accepting the casualties that the Battle of Normandy will incur regardless of its success.
The Churchill of Jonathan Teplitzky’s film feels privileged guilt, as he’s a powerful politician sending young men to their deaths, and professional jealousy, as Generals Dwight D. Eisenhower (John Slattery) and Bernard Montgomery (Julian Wadham) are collaborating on Operation Overlord, the code name for the Battle of Normandy, and disregarding the aging legend’s potentially dated battle expertise. The operation represents a realization, then, of the iconic prime minister’s prolonged and prophetic call to stamp out the Nazi party—perhaps at the ironic cost of his own relevancy.
The potential of this conceit resides in the promise of glimpsing a legend behind the curtains, learning how politics, showbiz, and myth intermingle to inform the fragile fabric of what we take for granted as history. Churchill pivots on the obvious yet resonant notion that Winston Churchill wasn’t always as insurmountably bluff and poetic as he was when delivering speeches that kept Allied morale afloat throughout WWII.
The film’s Churchill is traditionally commanding but also often suggests the blustery old relative who drinks too much while visiting for the holidays. Churchill smokes his famous stogies, which Teplitzky inevitably yet amusingly equates to phallic symbols, swills his scotch, argues with his wife, Clementine (Miranda Richardson), and routinely kicks up a fuss over the planning of Operation Overlord. Churchill eventually accepts the inevitable and delivers a speech on D-Day that will become historic.
This characterization of Churchill as a grumpy old man who’s largely superfluous to the planning of Operation Overlord, other than as a P.R. device, simplifies his legacy for the dubious purposes of narrative momentum and emotional lift. Attempting to humanize Churchill, the filmmakers heighten the prime minister’s naïveté, eliding his relationship with President Franklin D. Roosevelt as well as his multipronged role in setting the global stage for the Normandy offensive, though Churchill’s controversial tendency to threaten military options with hasty rewrites is referenced. We’re intended to regard this Churchill in rudimentary emotional terms, as he weathers the emasculation of aging and implicitly embraces his place as a radio personality—a bluntly autumnal approach that’s telegraphed in the opening scene, where Churchill strolls a beach, envisioning blood and corpses.
There are witty touches that show Churchill refining turns of phrase that will later turn up in his speeches, and there’s a boldly theatrical moment—when Churchill prays at the foot of his bed to god for weather that will halt D-Day—that suggests a more figuratively adventurous film, allowing Cox to color outside the lines of platitude. Cox’s thunderous voice—somehow raspy and velvety at once—is ideal for Churchill, honoring the Shakespearean intensity of the man’s orations, and the actor contrasts this voice with his powerfully rumpled physicality, painting a visceral portrait of transcendent will. But the film, which reduces intricate global negotiations to a battle of personalities in the superficially prestigious key of something like The King’s Speech, traps this energy within a trite coming-of-age narrative.