Film Review: Churchill

by Chris Piper on June 2, 2017

It’s never too late to grow up

Winston Churchill wrestles with a difficult decision.

In Churchill, opening in Bay Area theaters today, we’re asked to see the old English bulldog in a new and unflattering light as he attempts to bend the tide of history to his will. The film suffers from too narrow a focus, and an approach to story that is as simplistic as the former British prime minister was complex.

In the summer of 1944, as the allied invasion of France approached, an episode unfolded in which Churchill adamantly opposed the invasion, and attempted to force alternate battle plans on the U.S. General Dwight Eisenhower and the British General Montgomery. Seen by millions as a the greatest of all Britons, Churchill’s opinions and his magic with a speech still held significant sway with the general public, even if his military strategy was a relic of World War I.

As the film opens, we see Churchill, played with a grandly protruding lower lip and deeply furrowed brow by Brian Cox, attempt to bully not only Ike, played by John Slattery and Monty, played by Julian Wadham, but also King George VI, played by James Purefoy. Thus begins the long, slow, and somewhat agonizing arc of Sir Winston from a temperamental five-year-old in an elderly man’s body, to the living legend capable of giving a speech so stirring that one would have assumed he was sole architect of D-Day.

As we follow the arc, we learn, in scene after scene, that Churchill has both a thick head and an open heart and is at times as concerned with his place in history as with his place in the war effort. Those around him are forced to endure his endless tirades and infantile temper tantrums.

The film treads on very well-worn trails. World War II and D-Day have been covered  from just about every conceivable angle, and Churchill, one of the twentieth century’s most recognizable historical figures, has been portrayed by everyone from Richard Burton to Albert Finney to Christian Slater. Brian Cox’s offering leans heavily on facial expressions twisted by doubt and frustration and projecting a monstrously hulking presence on those around him.

Churchill shares a rare light moment with Ike

He doesn’t, however,  rampage through the film unchallenged. His wife Clemmie, played with a healthy dose of steely smiles by Miranda Richardson, manages to act somehow as public enabler and private confessor. And in the film’s few dramatic high points, Ike, played with surprisingly little range by John Slattery, Churchill’s bullying ways are blunted by a combination of the American general’s straight talk and ultimate authority.

As one of many secretaries assigned to keep up with Churchill, Helen Garrett, played by Ella Purnell, tries to keep up with his rapid fire dictation and his mercurial nature. We learn that her fiancé is steaming toward the Normandy coast in an English warship, and at an instant Winston realizes that his real purpose in the coming invasion is to reassure the population of the importance and wisdom of the allies’ decision to confront the Nazis head-on.

The film finally finds its footing near the end, as Churchill calls on his impressive skills as a communicator and unifier to deliver a radio address to the nation on D-Day +1. Here the actual Churchill’s still highly emotional words and delivery save the film’s climatic scene. Over and over again Churchill used very simple metaphors that he turned inside out to create moving images and powerful messages. Evoking a burning London of the Blitz of 1940, and how the agony of that time has tempered the resolve of the country,  Churchill claims that “Hitler has started a fire which must burn him out of Europe. Our troops will fight on, and the allies will fight on, and I shall fight on until we are free.”

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Churchill opens today at Landmark’s Shattuck Cinemas.

 

Chris Piper

Regardless of the age, Chris Piper thinks that a finely-crafted script, brought to life by willing actors guided by a sure-handed director, supported by a committed production and post-production team, for the benefit of us all, is just about the coolest thing ever.

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