The Railway Man director Jonathan Teplitzky heads to Winston Churchill’s quest for redemption in a character portrait about the man himself.
Set a few days before the D-Day landings of June 1944, Churchill (Brian Cox) is undergoing a crisis – troubled by visions of the seas running red while he saunters at the beach, he fears the command to send troops in to remove the Nazis in Europe will lead to wholesale slaughter.
Summoned before King George (a wonderfully subtle turn from James Purefoy), Montgomery and Eisenhower (former Mad Men star John Slattery), Churchill finds his protestations to pull back and wait for everything to be right with Operation Overlord are largely ignored.
With the clock ticking closer to the window of launch, Churchill himself struggles to reconcile both his own past and the burdens of being a leader during the most difficult of times.
Against a backdrop of the 1736th day of World War II and with the horrors and guilt of Gallipoli central to Churchill’s mental state, a hunched, portly and wilfully defiant Cox delivers a performance which teeters between poignancy and bluster. Squat, angry and channeling the “Nar-zees” intonations of Churchill with ease, Cox disappears into the role with no trouble whatsoever.
And with his director wanting to shoot plenty of profile shots and moody slow-mo moments of a man puffing on a cigar and exhaling slowly, the portrait is evocatively realised to say the least.
Granted, there are some artistic licences taken with Churchill’s last-minute protestations to the proposed landings, but Cox does nothing less than sell the moral dilemma of being a leader in war-time. While there’s an easy argument to say Teplitzky sometimes overeggs the dramatic pudding (something he was woefully guilty of during Colin Firth’s turn in The Railway Man) by relying heavily on the imagery to create the mood, the human edges are what really set this higher than the usual fare.
A wonderfully understated exchange between Purefoy’s King George and Churchill is simultaneously powerful and tender, as the two discuss how Winston’s desire to lead from the front is nothing short of foolhardy recklessness. In just five minutes on screen, these two actors lift this extraordinary sequence into the echelons of the compelling.
Brian Cox disappears into the role of Winston Churchill with no trouble whatsoever.
Equally, Richardson’s long-troubled wife Clem, while underused throughout other than to chide and scold the blustering pomposity of her angry husband, has a few scenes where the cost to the humanity and relationship of the central pair is smartly and deftly examined. It’s here that Churchill manages to soar above its time-ticking melodramatic edges and scenes of the man himself shouting out his guilty petulance while trying to navigate mentally quieter waters to appease his conscience.
Perhaps this is where Churchill could have been more successful than it already is.
With the theatre of war having been inexorably changed these days (to the simpler minded, it’s merely the debate before the pressing of a button), Churchill is more successful when it examines the human cost of conflict. It reminds us of the mental consequences of the guilt of leadership, the burden of decision and the regret of past mistakes made.
Thanks to a lead actor who sinks into an almost chameleonic turn, Churchill is more than just a simple portrait of a man troubled by the sins of the past; it becomes a nuanced turn of historical interest, even if questions of accuracy may dog it after the lights go up.
Cast: Brian Cox, Richard Durden, James Purefoy, Julian Wadham, Ella Purnell, Miranda Richardson
Director: Jonathan Teplitzky
Running time: 98 minutes