A review of the newly-released film “Churchill”

Winston Churchill had a long and complex military and political career but this film – it could just as easily have been a play – concerns a mere few days in that rich life: the last five days of preparation for Operation Overlord, the D-Day landings in June 1944.

As a young minister, Churchill had been involved with the disastrous Gallipoli landings of 1915 and, from the opening scenes (involving a rather lurid imagining of the English Channel turning red), he is seen to be fearing that the Second World War invasion of France could be a repeat of the abortive First World War landing in Turkey.

So this is an unconventional portrait of Churchill in that he is seen to be opposing what turned out to be a successful if bloody landing in Normandy and to be overruled when he decides that, if it is going ahead anyway, he wants to be physically present in a British warship. But it is a very conventional representation of Churchill in that we see him constantly smoking a big fat cigar and shouting – almost all his lines are at volume – at everyone from military leaders to secretaries and his wife.

Brian Cox does well in his portrayal of the eponymous great man, although he does not always totally disguise his native Scottish accent and a prayer scene is delivered in over-the-top theatrics (I did say it could have been a play). Miranda Richardson is excellent as the long-suffering Clementine (I liked the endearing “woof woof” between husband and wife).

And many of the support roles are well-played, especially John Slattery as General Eisenhower and James Purefoy as King George VI, although one of Churchill’s secretaries is given a certain prominence in a sub-plot that I found unconvincing. Every line of dialogue is delivered with great portentousness, either very quietly or – much more usually – at great volume so that there are no normal conversations (did I mention that this might have been a play?).

At first sight, it may seem strange that a film about arguably the most famous British man, whose greatest achievement was to stand against Hitler, should be written by someone called Alex von Tunzelmann, but this historian and author is neither male nor German as one might imagine but female and British which is perhaps why we have a more rounded profile of Churchill than is often the case with acknowledgement of his vulnerabilities and depression. Equally the choice of director is interesting: Jonathan Teplitzky is Australian and there were many Anzac casualties at Gallipoli.

So, in short, an honourable attempt to show fresh insight into a very familiar character but a work that would have benefited from a bit more subtlety and less shouting.

I once read a book contrasting Churchill with Hitler in terms of leadership styles and you can read my review of that work here.


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