Review by Jacquelin Hipes
A postscript at the end of Churchill suggests its subject may be the “greatest Briton of all time”. The film opens, however, on a far more disquieted figure than the one many hold in mind’s eye. It is June 1944, only a few days before the launch of Operation Overlord—codename for the Battle of Normandy—and Winston Churchill (Brian Cox) is struggling. After nearly five years of fighting the Nazis he wants nothing more than to win the war, but the Allies’ plan feels too reminiscent of the failed Gallipoli Campaign in Turkey during World War I. With the narrow window for a successful launch of the operation closing, he clashes with U.S. General Eisenhower (John Slattery) and British Field Marshal Montgomery (Julian Wadham) over what he fears will amount to a slaughter. Hovering conspicuously along the fringes of this conflict is his wife, Clementine (Miranda Richardson), who tries to remind Winston of his role as a civil servant, rather than a military commander. As D-Day draws nearer Churchill broods over the human cost of war and sinks deeper into a melancholy neither he nor the nation can afford to indulge. With the guidance of his wife and closest confidants he must overcome this black outlook, and provide strength and hope to his country.
Brian Cox turns in an outstanding performance with his take on the former British Prime Minister. Cantankerous and sharp-witted, he rarely makes it through a scene without a smoldering cigar, enwreathed in smoke like some slumbering dragon. Cox blusters and barks with all the necessary panache. However, his best moments come when uncertainty cracks the brave façade. Although the reality of the extent of Churchill’s depressive tendencies compared to that described in contemporaneous accounts is debatable, he was indisputably a man capable of great emotional response. By indulging this facet of Churchill’s character Cox both humanizes a figure that looms large in history and somehow makes him seem even more exceptional through his resulting fortitude.
As Clementine “Clemmie” Churchill, Miranda Richardson embodies the lovely Leonard Cohen lyric: “A husband leads, a wife commands.” For all her empathy towards the immense strain her husband’s position exerts on him, her expectations of him remain high…and achievable, if only he would quit his squabbling with Eisenhower. She often looks at him with a mixture of exasperation and pride, a politician’s wife capable of seeing beyond her spouse’s ego, and provides just the right touch of heart.
Although given little to do early on other than suffer Churchill’s temper as his secretary, Ella Purnell shines during a scene late in the film, reminding her boss (and the audience) what a toll the war effort has taken on the ordinary British citizen. Richard Durden provides a bit of comic relief as Jan Smuts, Churchill’s friend and a member of the Imperial War Cabinet.
Dramas about historically significant events face the difficult task of creating tension around an inevitable outcome. Presumably this film’s audience already knows what a great victory D-Day was for Allied forces, how it turned the tide of the war firmly in their favor. This certainty could transform Churchill’s anxiety into histrionics and reduce the carefully deliberated risks of Operation Overlord to trivialities. Alex von Tunzelmann’s script eschews any knowing winks from the future, infused throughout with the fear that Germany could emerge victorious. Well-placed moments of levity—usually in the form of Churchill’s acerbic retorts—keep the film from turning excessively melancholic. Cinematographer David Higgs provides an exceptionally beautiful viewing experience with an abundance of saturated golds and blue-greens.
Minor quibbles about Churchill’s precise mental state aside, Churchill is a well-acted and sumptuously shot examination of the cost of war and the value of leadership in all its forms. Brian Cox’s performance grounds the story, and reminds us that even the greatest of men might suffer from moments of doubt.