Snapshot of a wartime hero

Brian Cox as Winston Churchill.

WINSTON Churchill is remembered as one of the towering political leaders of the 20th century. As Britain’s wartime prime minister, his impassioned speeches are often credited for having kept much of Britain’s heart and soul together during the dark hours of World War II.

The new film Churchill by Australian Jewish director Jonathan Teplitzky, working from a script by British historian Alex von Tunzelmann, may surprise some, because it does not focus on Churchill’s finest hours – of which there were so many. 

Instead, Churchill takes place over a few days in June 1944 leading up to the Normandy D-Day Allied landing.

According to this film, Churchill actively opposed the landing, promoting instead a southern European action by the Allies. 

The reason for his opposition? He feared tremendous casualties associated with a direct beach invasion, being haunted by the images of thousands of young British soldiers dying during World War I at Gallipoli and elsewhere, when Churchill was First Lord of the Admiralty, the political head of the British Navy.

Although set at a crucial time during the war, the film feels like it could have been adapted from a play, with most scenes set inside offices and residences. 

Prime Minister Churchill, played by iconic Scottish actor Brian Cox, is seen arguing with Allied generals including Dwight Eisenhower (John Slattery from Mad Men) as well as his wife, Clementine (Miranda Richardson).

Churchill’s staff fear that the stress of leadership means he is losing his grip on reality – Churchill was 69 at the time and still had more than 10 years of political life ahead. 

Churchill abuses underlings and rants and raves, insisting that he must then go in on one of the first boats to the beach. Given Churchill’s extraordinary political career that spanned more than five decades, plus his enormous accomplishments as a writer – he won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1953 – it seems overly grandiose to name this small film in a way that implies that it’s a full biography, which it is not.

What Churchill does, however, is to give a platform for two of the greatest acting performances of the year: Brian Cox as Winston and Miranda Richardson as Clementine, showing the viewer that a couple arguing can still be interesting. 

While Slattery as Eisenhower is not nearly as well-cast, other characters provide great foils for Cox’s screen power, including Julian Wadham as Field Marshal Montgomery, Richard Durden as South African statesman Jan Smuts, James Purefoy as King George VI (an understated but touching small role) and Ella Purnell as a war room secretary.

DON PERLGUT

Churchill is currently screening.