As sometimes happens in the world of cinema, two films are being released this year that tackle the same subject or source material - in this case, legendary UK Prime Minister Winston Churchill during the Second World War. Coming ahead in the race in front of Joe Wright’s ‘Darkest Hour’ is Jonathan Teplitzky’s ‘Churchill’, featuring Brian Cox in the titular role. With so much already said about this period of Churchill’s career, does this new screen biopic offer anything new to say about this important and controversial figure?
Written by Alex von Tunzelmann, ‘Churchill’ focuses on the days leading up to D-Day, and finds Churchill in a state of tremendous anxiety. He doesn’t believe the landings will work and tries to stop the U.S. and UK forces from launching into what he sees as a suicide mission. The problem is, most of his peers and superiors are dismissive of Churchill because of his abrasiveness and old age. With time running out, Churchill tries as hard as he can to stop the landings and reassert his place as a major player in the war effort.
There are certainly some interesting ideas in this film and it is handsomely made, but much like many period British biopics of the last few years (such as ‘The Theory of Everything’ and ‘The Danish Girl’), there isn’t enough to ‘Churchill’ to hold the film together. The idea of focusing on his anxiety about D-Day - something that comes initially as a surprise - seems like a good one in principle, but as the film progresses, that tension begins to dissipate with the audience hindsight that the landings are a success and that Churchill’s actions could have had the opposite effect in ending the war. Many films have been able to jump this hurdle of the audience knowing the ending of the story, and this film certainly seems to think it can by connecting his fears about D-Day with his guilt over the disastrous Gallipoli landings in the First World War that he was instrumental in planning, but that simply serves to explain his anxiety rather than maintain the tension.
There’s also not much to the narrative, the screenplay often falling into pure exposition and Teplitzky filling in the gaps with endless shots of Churchill walking along British moors or beaches, far more interested in recreating the icon of Churchill than offering something new. So much effort goes into the humanising of Churchill but little into the rest of the characters, and the film conveniently omits the less pleasing aspects of Churchill’s personality. It also feels a tad derivative in the wake of the prestige Netlix series ‘The Crown’, which presented another insubstantial portrait of Churchill being dismissed as past his prime. The film also finds its climax in his "We shall never surrender" speech, making it feel a little bit too much like ‘The King’s Speech’, albeit with a less erudite and clever screenplay to earn that ending.
There’s also an issue with the representation of Clementine Ford, Churchill’s wife played by Miranda Richardson. Their relationship is strained from the get-go, but the film offers us no background to them or understanding of why these people are still together. Clementine’s function in the narrative is mostly to suppress her husband’s tantrums and look exhausted, less a great woman at the side of a great man than a woman we barely know propping the great man up. Her name isn’t spoken until the final ten minutes of the film and the postscript at the end doesn’t even mention her. Her addition to the film feels uncomfortably perfunctory, another example of a film with a fascinating female character forgetting her in favour of the men, made worse by having an actor of Richardson’s stature and talent in the part.
There are certainly some interesting ideas in this film and it is handsomely made, but much like many period British biopics of the last few years... there isn’t enough to ‘Churchill’ to hold the film together.
The highlight of the film is unquestionably Brian Cox, who finds the gravitas, the wit and the dirt in the character. Cox has always been a well-respected actor, but this is one of the few roles that really takes advantage of his tremendous talents, and you can see him chewing and relishing every moment. Most of the humanity in ‘Churchill’ comes from Cox’s performance and the way he captures the storm in Churchill’s soul. This is a perfectly fine if uninspiring film, but Cox makes watching it mostly worth it.
In the end, ‘Churchill’ just feels a bit dull and derivative, the kind of biopic made for casual audiences that just want to sit back, learn some stuff about someone famous, ooh and ahh at the bits they think are interesting or didn't know, and then leave the cinema never thinking about the film again expect to comment occasionally to people about the tidbits they learned and how good it was because the performances were acceptable and the film was heavy with self-importance. It’s a perfunctory, uninspiring biopic that ticks all the expected boxes, but in the wake of genre-pushing films like ‘Jackie’ and ‘Get On Up’, that simply doesn’t cut it anymore. This part of Churchill’s career has been covered so many times, and the more this film talked about his work as a younger man in the Great War, the more I wish I was watching that film, one about the making of this fascinating man rather than yet another about the unravelling of him. Brian Cox does give a sterling performance that lifts the film, but in the end, even his great work can’t make this film any less forgettable. Hopefully the next Churchill film finds the tension, danger and inventiveness this one was so lacking in.