Winston Churchill is probably, next to Margaret Thatcher, the most contentious figure in 20th Century British politics. Demonised as a racist enemy of the working classes and mythologised as the saviour of his country, this depressive, alcoholic, conservative romantic is probably a fascinating subject for a serious psychologically focussed study. Unfortunately, the recent Churchill is not that film.
Jonathan Teplitzky’s film deals with an – as far as I know fictional – scenario whereby in the run-up to D-Day Churchill is haunted by his recollections of the ill-fated Gallipoli invasion in 1915 for which he bore much of the responsibility (to his credit, in the aftermath of Gallipoli Churchill volunteered to serve on the front line in France in the expectation that he would be killed. Whatever you might think about the man’s other attitudes, it’s difficult to imagine any of the last politicians who involved British soldiers in a badly judged military adventure abroad taking the concept of atonement so seriously). Churchill then unsuccessfully attempts to persuade the commanders of the Allied forces to drop the plans for the D-Day invasion. The invasion goes ahead and the rest, as they say, is history.
The good points about the film? First, Brian Cox’s performance as Churchill. Cox is a magnetic presence on screen, and while his performance doesn’t hit the heights of that as Hannibal Lecter in Manhunter or as Killearn in Rob Roy, he’s still a compelling presence. Miranda Richardson is excellent as Churchill’s wife Clementine; her slightly brittle performance as an intelligent woman disillusioned by a relationship with a self-obsessed and distracted man is outstanding. Sadly, the other characters are ciphers for the most part.Visually the film looks beautiful, with polished, smooth contrasts of shadow and light within richly ornate, at times almost empty, interiors. Cinematographically there’s nothing to criticise here.
The weak point of the film is this – it’s entire premise. Churchill’s life was dramatic enough without the need to invent a fictional scenario. The valedictory tone of the film seems inappropriate; in 1944 Churchill was, I would think, already planning the progress of his political career after a war that he knew was likely to be over in two years at the most. At D-Day, Churchill was still seven years away from re-election as Prime Minister and twenty years away from death; the idea that a man whose career was defined from the start by high ambitions felt useless at the age of seventy, at the time when the end of the war was in sight, seems a little implausible.
Interestingly, this is the first of two new films on the subject of Churchill. Gary Oldman plays Churchill in The Darkest Hour, set in the early days of his premiership. Hopefully that film finds enough drama in reality to serve its subject without too much fictional decoration.
Churchill is available on Blu-ray and DVD on 16 October, courtesy of Lionsgate Home Entertainment UK