‘We shall bore them in the multiplexes.’ ‘Never in the field of (a) human biopic was so much time wasted for so little.’ These are some Winstonian critiques of Churchill, a drama set during the ninety-six hour build-up to D-Day – with some artistic licence – that lacks the scope suggested by the title. It is a showcase for Brian Cox in the title role of British Prime Minister and Minister for Defence Winston Churchill who served in both capacities from 1940 to 1945 – but an unflattering one. The film, written by first-time screenwriter Alex von Tunzelmann and directed by Jonathan Teplitzky, depicts Churchill as a nuisance to the military, vainglorious, a poor husband, an alcoholic and a bully. The film ends with the caption noting Churchill has been thought of as our greatest Briton. Clearly someone is having a laugh.
The film ought to be named ‘The Prime Minister’s Speech’ for it has something in common with Tom Hooper’s acclaimed Oscar-winning film about King George VI overcoming his stutter. Here, Winston has to overcome his misgivings about Operation Overlord, which took place on the 6 June 1944, and deliver a radio broadcast praising the efforts of 250,000 allied troops engaged on an offensive over a fifty mile stretch of land, determined to strike decisively against Nazi Germany.
Although set during the war, we see no fighting. It begins with a dream sequence with Winston losing his trademark Homberg hat in a blood-filled incoming tide. He has never forgotten the tragic loss of life in the First World War, when he, as First Lord of the Admiralty, orchestrated the disastrous Dardanelles campaign as well as helping to plan the military landings at Gallipoli, both of which resulted in heavy losses of life.
But if we are told once that Winston is haunted by events of almost thirty years ago, we are told a dozen times. ‘We must learn from history’, he tells General Eisenhower (John Slattery), Field Marshal Montgomery (Julian Wadham), even King George VI (James Purefoy) himself – plus his staff, his wife Clemmie (Miranda Richardson) and his new secretary (Ella Purnell). Again and again, he expresses his misgivings, exposing his impotence as the Prime Minister, unable to change Eisenhower and Montgomery’s minds.
This is an attempt to show how, in certain situations, a Prime Minister has no power. This message might be timely – how much power does the current Prime Minister have without her party having more than 50% of the seats in the House of Commons? However, it isn’t explored in an illuminating way.
At one point, Churchill gets King George VI to agree to sail to France on HMS Belfast ahead of the allied troops, to lead the troops from the front instead of being a general who orchestrates events from safety. It is, of course, bonkers. We don’t see the initial proposal, only the King backing out.
Mostly we see Churchill embarrass himself in front of his staff, shouting at his new secretary. It isn’t clever and it isn’t funny. Van Tunzelmann has Clemmie slap her husband, though stops short of telling him he is a boorish pig. He isn’t very authoritative in front of senior army commanders and undermines them by planning his own campaign.
105 minutes of trashing Churchill’s legacy doesn’t make for great viewing. Mostly, it is over-egged. After making a speech – I won’t say under what conditions – Churchill has a witty line about wishing his drink were Scotch, and you want the film to end there. Alas, it is followed by a superfluous epilogue.
The most interesting aspect of the film is Winston’s friendship with General Jan Smuts (Richard Durden), who in the late 1920s advocated segregation between blacks and whites in his native South Africa. You would never guess from the film that Smuts was made a Field Marshal of the British Army, equal in rank to Montgomery. Smuts is uncritically portrayed as Winston’s closest confidante, who cajoles him to work at various points. This relationship could have been developed if Van Tunzelmann was not so obsessed with repeating her same point.
Cox relishes the title role but doesn’t transcend the limits of the script. Richardson’s measured performance as Clemmie is more impressive – she is an oasis of calm and good sense with a proportionate sense of public duty.
For a more fulfilling portrait of Churchill on screen, we look to the autumn release of director Joe Wright’s Darkest Hour, with Gary Oldman as Winston deciding whether to seek a truce with Nazi Germany or stand true to his principles. World War Two will also dominate our cinema screens in July with the release of Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk, about the mass evacuation of allied troops in 1940. These reminders of Britain’s war effort are supposed to pay tribute to the country’s resilience. With fault lines exposed to the Brexit Referendum, the recent General Election and, this week, the fire at Grenfell Tower in North Kensington, these movies seem off-message.
Churchill is out in cinemas now!