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Film Review: Churchill

7 July 17 words: Ash Carter

We got down to see one of the latest flicks...

On a recent visit to the Churchill War Rooms in Westminster, a quote from historian Sir Arthur Bryant left a lasting impression on me.  Engraved on the walls of the fascinating museum, Bryant said that, following Churchill’s death in 1965, “the day of giants is gone forever.”  Rightly or wrongly, the obsession with judging historical figures by modern standards has diminished his legacy somewhat, but whatever your opinion on his place in posterity, Churchill was doubtlessly a titan in the single most definitive period of in world history.  As such, the task of portraying him on the big screen is a fairly thankless one, due mainly to the magnitude of his shadow.  It’s the same way that films about Jesus or Henry VIII tend to stink – they’re at once too familiar and too grand to be presented as fresh or interesting.

Jonathan Teplitzky is the latest director to take a stab at presenting the former Prime Minister’s narrative, offering a snapshot glimpse into the 96 hours before D-Day, where Brian Cox’s Churchill desperately tries to stop the invasion he views as too large a risk.  With command of the Allied forces now with Dwight Eisenhower, Churchill is portrayed as an increasingly irrelevant nuisance, clinging on to his experience from World War I, unable to adapt to the changing face of modern warfare.  Haunted by the mistakes made during the disastrous Turkish Campaign during The Great War, for which he was held chiefly responsible, Churchill feels that Eisenhower’s ‘Operation Overlord’ will throw the lives of too many men away needlessly, and that a more cautious invasion should be planned across several fronts.

The counterintuitive premise of Churchill as a vulnerable has-been, desperate to assert his relevance on a war that no longer really needs him is an interesting one.  We’re all familiar with the cigar-chomping, peace-signing bulldog of a man that rallied a decimated Britain through the Blitz, so to see him as flawed, insecure and vain is refreshing.  Unfortunately, the idea is manifested in a truly woeful script.

The old scriptwriting adage, "show me, don’t tell me," is never more apt, as Churchill repeatedly and ham-fistedly overly-explains his motivations in scene after overdramatic scene.  It feels like a short film dragged out to feature length, as a single idea is repeated over and over, never feeling more relevant or dramatically interesting than its first appearance five minutes in.

Cox’s performance deserves far better dialogue, as he tries his admirable best with what he’s been given.  His impression might only accurately appear when he’s giving a typically Churchillian speech (the rest of the time he sounds rather Brian Cox-like), but he portrays the war leader’s humour, and often shameless vanity, with aplomb.  Mad Men’s John Slattery also makes a great Eisenhower, a man with the weight of the world’s future on his shoulders, caught between great admiration and sheer annoyance towards Churchill.  Although he only has two scenes, James Purefoy’s George VI is magnetic, and deserved far more screen time.

Cinematographer David Higgs’ masterful use of the long shot helps create a beautiful looking film which, coupled with the solid performances, only makes the awful script more disappointing. It’s a great shame, as to find an interesting angle (however historically inaccurate) on such a familiar figure is so rare, and Churchill just feels like a hugely wasted opportunity.  On the film, prominent Churchill historian Andrew Roberts wrote, “The only problem with the movie is that it gets absolutely everything wrong. Never in the course of movie-making have so many specious errors been made in so long a movie by so few writers.”

We can only imagine what Higgs’ cinematography, Teplitzky’s direction and the performances of Cox, Slattery and Purefoy could have accomplished had they been given a script with even a hint of nuance.  

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