Churchill is the first of two films to be released in 2017 about the wartime career of the British Prime Minister Winston Churchill.
Churchill takes place over the four days before D-Day. Churchill (Brian Cox) is suffering from memories of the failed operation in Gallipoli 29 years prior and servicing on the Western Front. Fearing the D-Day Landings could be another disaster Churchill, clashes with the British and American commanders as he is pushed out of the military decision-making process.
Churchill is the second film about World War II from Australian filmmaker Jonathan Teplitzky; his previous effort being the prisoner-of-war movie The Railway Man. The Railway Man was an underrated drama and worth checking out because of Jeremy Irvine’s incredible performance. Churchill does not match the heights of The Railway Man.
Teplitzky and his team did assemble a solid cast: supporting Cox was Miranda Richardson, John Slattery, Julian Wadham, Richard Durden, James Purefoy and David Webb as well rising star Ella Purnell (Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children). A film like this centered on Cox’s performance and he was terrific during some of his monologs like when he prayed for rain to prevent D-Day and his speech at the end of the film (it is safe to assume audience know how D-Day ended) and he nailed downChurchill’s movements. However, Cox’ natural voice was a distraction because we know what Churchill’s voice really sounded like.
The film was made on a modest $10 Million budget and was a major Scottish production. Whilst Cox and Richardson give the film gravitas the rest of the cast can hardly command the biggest pay packages and Churchill comes across more like a glorified TV movie. There are some nice wide shots, Teplitzky has a great eye for scenery and composer Lorne Balfe provides some solid orchestra music but the majority of the film is a talky film, taking place mostly in the war rooms, grand halls, and bedrooms or on the grounds of sparsely populated country estates. One hilarious example was when Churchill visits Field Marshall Montgomery’s (Julian Wadham) troops and the scene takes place in a wooded area and the production could only hire a handful of extras.
Teplitzky also fell into the trap of making Churchill too sappy and sentimental because characters make emotional speeches about their inner doubts and feelings or have shouting matches with each other, inflamed by Balfe’s music. It just does not ring true to how people would actually speak. It’s schmaltzy for the sake of it.
Churchill is the first film written by Alex von Tunzelmann who has worked a professional historian and author. Her intentions are noble as she is trying to show the man behind the public persona – Churchill is clearly an intelligent man with a remarkable way with words, so stubborn that is both a strength and a fault and enjoyed alcohol a bit too much. Churchill faults made him more human because he suffers from guilt from the Gallipoli campaign and a scene where he berates his new secretary (Purnell) acted as a counterpoint to a scene in the beginning of Downfall where Adolf Hitler treated his new secretary with tenderness. However, von Tunzelmann and Teplitzky sacrifice historical fact for dramatic effort: Churchill is seen as a dinosaur firing the old war when in reality he came up with some ambitious plans and he commissioned some radical military inventions including for D-Day like Mulberry Harbors and crab tanks (also known as mine flails). Churchill would have known about Operation Fortitude, a complex mission of subterfuge where the Allies tried to convince the German high command that the Allies were going to invade Calais instead of Normandy. That would have made an awesome film.
The film also makes out that Churchill wanted to invade territory in the Mediterranean as a way to spread the risk of D-Day and save soldiers lives in case the operation failed. In reality, Churchill was thinking of British self-interest in the Mediterranean and wanted to invade Southern and Eastern Europe to prevent Soviet influence in Europe. The American intent was simply to win the war as quickly as possible.
By the third act, Churchill turns into The King’s Speech where Churchill is seen as the person who has to rally British moral and has to make the speech about the outcome of D-Day whether it succeeds or fails. Churchill falls into a state of deep depression and his loved ones have to shake him out of it. The comparisons with The King’s Speech are made more pronounced because James Purefoy is playing George VI – having a stutter and a lisp.
Churchill is a well-intended film that has some great actors and nice shots but its budget limitations were apparent – making it incompatible for cinematic viewing and simplified history a bit too much.