Should I Watch..? 'Churchill'
What's the big deal?
Churchill is a historical drama film released in 2017 and is the debut film written by historian Alex von Tunzelmann. The film is set in 1944 and depicts the turmoil behind the scenes leading up to D-Day, one of the key events in the Allied victory in World War 2. The film stars Brian Cox, Miranda Richardson, John Slattery, Ella Purnell and James Purefoy and was directed by Jonathan Teplitsky. Released just six months after the success of Darkest Hour, the film failed to find an audience with critics and viewers alike with global takings between $5.4 million and $7.5 million - less than the estimated budget of $10 million. Critics praised the performances of the cast especially Cox as Winston Churchill but the film was decreed a failure for historical inaccuracies, muddled storytelling and general inferiority to Darkest Hour - which also featured an Oscar-winning performance from its leading man, Gary Oldman.
What's it about?
In June 1944, Britain is struggling to maintain the war effort against the Nazis who now occupy most of Europe. In an effort to lead a fightback to reclaim France, an Allied army of British and American forces have gathered on the south coast of England as part of Operation Overlord - an ambitious but daring attempt to ship a vast number of men and vehicles across the English Channel to land on the north coast of France. For British Prime Minister Winston Churchill, the plan is fraught with peril - not only would the troops be landing under heavy and sustained German bombardment but they would be landing at a handful of nearby sites, concentrating their forces right in the middle of the German firing line.
Despite the eagerness of US General Dwight D. Eisenhower and Field Marshall Montgomery to go ahead, Churchill's resistance to the plan threatens to spiral out of control as he draws up an alternative. Haunted by his failure in the First World War and the Gallipoli, Churchill is resolute that such a massacre should never happen again. But to his astonishment and despair, he finds himself increasingly marginalised by those leading the war effort and having been worn down by years of resisting the Nazis, Churchill's self-belief begins to waver as does his relationship with his long-suffering wife Clemmie.
Clementine "Clemmie" Churchill
Dwight D. Eisenhower
King George VI
Alex von Tunzelmann
Release Date (UK)
16th June, 2017
Biography, Drama, History, War
What's to like?
On a visual level, Churchill has everything it needs to make it feel as authentic as possible. The sets are beautifully decorated to match the era and Teplitsky displays a keen eye for direction, especially involving silhouettes of characters standing starkly against an open sky or near some eye-catching feature. The most affecting scenes are in the opening sequence as Churchill loses his hat on the shore and the sea washes up red with blood, illustrating both his fears about D-Day and his remorse at the loss of so many lives. As we are introduced to Cox's portrayal of Churchill, you immediately notice that the prosthetics and makeup that aided Oldman's performance in Darkest Hour are not used here. And while Cox isn't an exact lookalike of the part, he still delivers enough pomp and gusto to convince us. In some ways, it's every bit as good as Oldman's performance.
Luckily, he is also backed up by a superb supporting cast. Richardson is a passionate but cold Clemmie, one who both supports her husband as a war-time leader but also resents him for it. I also thought Slattery was excellent as Eisenhower but the film belongs to Cox as Churchill - how could it not? At least the film makes an effort to show us a side of the character we haven't often seen before - his temper, his manic depression and his fears about history repeating itself with brutal consequences. For most Britons, Churchill is almost a stereotype - a bulldog-faced fighter who fought off the Nazi menace with bravado and a number of carefully worded speeches. The film asks what pressure the man was under and what effect did it have on not just himself but those around him, even the war itself.
- Cox learnt the film's script as a single piece rather than memorizing individual scenes. He refused to use a fat suit for the role and thus, he put on an additional 22 lbs in weight. He also used an electronic cigar due to Scotland's strict anti-smoking laws.
- By weird coincidence, Churchill was the MP for Dundee which happens to be Brian Cox's hometown.
- Among the files shown strewn around Churchill's office are files stamped BIGOT. This was an acronym for British Invasion of German Occupied Territory and denoted an individual cleared to access the confidential files regarding Operation Overlord.
What's not to like?
Unfortunately, not even Cox's considerable talents as an actor can save Churchill from being terminally dull. Even if we ignore the fact that it essentially tells the same story as Darkest Hour (Churchill having major doubts about himself as he leads the country through war with Nazi Germany), the film somehow manages to turn what might have been an interesting character study or gripping war drama into a slow and ponderous slog. It's such a shame because Cox's performance deserves better than this. Even showing us Churchill's hidden side, such as his manic depression and dependence on alcohol, fails to make the film interesting because it clashes with the common conception of Churchill's indefatigability. Watching the film, I found myself puzzled as to his motivations and behaviour.
But the film's main problem is unfortunately with the competition. While a somewhat fawning portrait of the man, Darkest Hour showed us a Churchill full of sound and fury as he almost single-handedly stood up against the Nazis. In Churchill (which is set just a few short years later), he is depicted as an out-of-touch has-been whose failure to understand modern warfare effectively renders him obsolete. What's worse is that there is actually little evidence to back up a number of the film's ideas like his opposition to the Americans or D-Day or even his marital strife with Clemmie. Of course, this wouldn't be the first film to grind up historical facts for the sake of a narrative (and not even a good one at that) but you get the feeling that this film is composed of multiple ideas and concepts rather than any real historical fact. There's no drive to the film or anything that wakes you from your slumber, something the film desperately needs.
Should I watch it?
It's a difficult film to recommend outside of hospitals looking for an alternative to anesthetic. It's a shame that Churchill completely wastes the talents and performances of its cast for a film that is historically questionable and terminally boring. It feels like a Sunday evening costume drama from the BBC - well made and visually authentic but ultimately lacking in any real sort of dramatic impetus. If you haven't seen Darkest Hour or for some reason don't fancy it then maybe you'll enjoy this. But personally, I'd still recommend that film instead of this one.
Great For: challenging the cultural perception of Churchill, Brian Cox fans, anyone who hasn't seen Darkest Hour
Not So Great For: critics who overlooked Cox's performance, anyone feeling sleepy, argumentative historians
What else should I watch?
Having already established which 2017 film featuring Winston Churchill as the central character is better, there are other films that examine the man in further detail. Young Churchill follows the man during a troubled time at school and his early career as a cavalry officer in India rather than his more famous time as Prime Minister. A less successful film was Chuchill: The Hollywood Years with Christian Slater playing the war-time leader as a cigar-chomping action hero in a very different version of World War 2. Intended as a parody of films like Pearl Harbor and U-571 which ignored or exaggerated historical facts, the film sadly crashed and burned like the Hindenburg instead.
D-Day itself - the legendary landing of Allied forces on the beaches of Normandy in 1944 - has been covered several times in movies but perhaps none quite as brutally as the opening sequence to Saving Private Ryan. Perhaps the most famous film about Operation Overlord was The Longest Day, a three hour epic with an international cast list that feels like some sort of fever dream - Henry Fonda, Roddy McDowell, Robert Mitchum, Robert Wagner, John Wayne, Richard Burton, Sean Connery, Leslie Phillips, Gert Fröbe and fellow Bond villains Walter Gotell and Curd Jürgens... the list goes on. Critics lauded the film for its documentary feel of the events as well as the film's epic battle sequences that laid bare the horror of war in grim detail. Winning and nominated for a number of prestigious awards, it probably remains the most complete look at one of the most compelling military events of the conflict.
© 2019 Benjamin Cox