There’s nothing quite so disconcerting as seeing a hero exposed as a human.
That’s what happens to a great British prime minister in “Churchill,” Jonathan Teplitzky’s sepia-toned chronicle of the great man’s tortured descent into redundancy in the lead-up to D-Day.
The film is a slight affair with dialogue that tends toward the melodramatic and languid editing that slows the pace and sometimes exacerbates the clunkiness of the screenplay. But strong performances, especially from Brian Cox in the title role, may be enough to save it from the biopic bargain bin.
It opens with a long shot of Cox’s Churchill tottering along a frothing beach. When his hat drops into the surf and he reaches for it with his cane, the water runs red and Churchill finds himself staring into an ocean of blood. Memories of the Great War and the men he sent to die in it flood his mind, and we see him walking back to his home through a tangle of barbed wire and corpses lying prone in the sand.
“So many men. So much waste,” he mutters to himself. “We mustn’t let it happen again.”
It’s a strong start, but tedium soon sets in.
Soon enough, we follow Churchill through a cloud of cigar smoke to a meeting of the allied military commanders. They have hatched a plan to invade the beaches of Normandy with brute force, fully endorsed by a young American general named Eisenhower. Churchill, haunted by memories of the past and fearful of sending tens of thousands of men to their deaths, is the lone dissenter.
The central drama in “Churchill” is not World War II, but the title character’s war with himself. As it slowly dawns on him that his military expertise is neither needed nor respected, he must come to grips with his inevitable decline and with the rise of new and younger heroes. This does not go well.
Cox, who draws heavily on his Shakespearean training for the role, plays Churchill with a fascinating mix of rage and confusion. In a powerful scene with Miranda Richardson as the prime minister’s wife, we see both of those emotions swimming in his eyes, which Teplitzky and his cinematographer David Higgs are smart enough to linger on for a few powerful moments.
“Try acting like a hero, Winston, and then maybe people will believe you are one,” she says. To which Churchill responds, with that uncomfortable mix of rage and confusion, “Why don’t you just have me stuffed?”
Fine performances also come from John Slattery as a resolute but open-hearted Eisenhower and from James Purefoy as the stuttering King George VI, whose heart-to-heart with Churchill over his foolhardy desire to lead his troops into battle contains the film’s most human moments.
But even Cox isn’t talented enough to overcome much of Alex von Tunzelmann’s script, which brims with sentimentalism as the English sea brims with blood.
“Who will I be when it’s all over, if we win or it ends in disaster?” Churchill asks his wife, in one of many over-literal exchanges. “What will I be if I’m no longer fighting?”
That certainly is the central question of this story, clearly posed. But the answer is less than satisfactory – for Churchill as well as for viewers.
2.5 stars (out of four)
Starring: Brian Cox, Miranda Richardson, John Slattery, James Purefoy
Running time: 98 minutes
Rated: PG for war scenes, smoking and language
The lowdown: In the lead-up to the Normandy Invasions, British Prime Minister Winston Churchill comes to terms with his declining power as a military strategist.