Brian Cox growls his way through this biopic of the wartime Prime Minister known for his inspiring speeches and role in carrying Britain through the Second World War. The film takes place shortly before the D-Day landings, as Eisenhower, Montgomery and others are planning to assault the beaches of Normandy in an all-out push to dislodge the Nazi troops and hopefully turn the tide of the war. Churchill is opposed to the plan, knowing the tragic cost of warfare from his experiences is the Great War almost thirty years before and threatens to derail their plans. We see behind the well-recognized and rehearsed facade to Churchill's relationships with his wife, staff and others.
For me the film suffered from a number of fundamental flaws. As all historical films the audience already knows the outcome of the D-Day landings and Churchill undermining the tension on which any regular film would rely. Churchill's attempts to make the American's reconsider their plan are therefore devoid of any serious threat. Unlike another WWII story that came out this year, “Their Finest”, which took an unknown cast of characters and made you care about them, this takes a well-known personage and almost succeeds in doing the opposite. Churchill is shown as moody, almost incompetent in his contradicting the American generals, arrogant, and petty. He berates his staff, is unloving to his wife, almost pathologically obsessed with the war. He is a man who has had his day, whose former triumphs have instilled in him a sense of self-importance that goes unrecognised in many of his peers. He makes constant reference to being like a lion who has had his teeth removed, or sitting with paws crossed, while others take charge. There is also a poignant scene where the king explains to him that he understands his frustration in not being allowed to “do” anything. Churchill is more of a figurehead, someone known for speechifying, rather than heroic deeds. I struggled to connect with this and it often came off as Churchill whining, when the general perception of him is as a strong persona. It is an interesting idea to scratch beneath the surface and illusion of an historical figure to reveal the true man, but when he is revealed to be a fairly unlikeable character with few redeeming features it is a tough watch. There is a lack of substance to the ideas too, favouring a strong character performance by Cox, never lacking a cigar or tumbler of scotch rather than really delving into the ideas behind the man. One of the central themes is Churchill's regrets over Gallipoli that lead him to hesitate over Operation Overlord, but since he is cut out of the planning of this it is fairly inconsequential. He is given a Lear-esque speech where he prays for storms on the day of launch so that it might be called off, but again this serves only to highlight his impotence.
A trial to get through with lengthy conversations that go nowhere and do nothing to explain the characters. You get the feeling at times that you are waiting for D-Day to finally happen so that there will be something interesting going on. This is made worse in the scene with the king, where his stilted manner of speech means that this discussion drags on twice as long as others. The idea of Churchill being wary of sending so many men to their deaths could have formed an interesting part of a larger film, but when that is the central idea of an entire film, it is hard to get through. For a film that is titled “Churchill”, it would have been interesting to see more of his life, rather than this slim portion. Perhaps it would have been better entitled “D-Day” and spent more time on the planning and everything that went into the operation. As it is it seems a little stuck between wartime drama and character study, not really succeeding as either.