Winston Churchill may be the famous figure of the 20th century to be most-portrayed on film. Indeed, it's hard to sell a historically-themed British film or TV series that touches upon the WWII years without making Churchill a central character. For actors the role must seem irresistible. After all, Churchill's real-life mannerisms and eccentricities remain the stuff of legend. In an age when most people are seemingly uninterested and uninformed about history, Churchill Mania is very much in vogue in some quarters. In the new film independent film "Churchill", Brian Cox becomes the latest thespian to portray the larger-than-life statesman. He does a brilliant job of it, too, having gained over twenty pounds in the process. It may seem that Churchill is one of the easiest legends to be imitated. As with John Wayne, it seems any drunk with a lampshade on his head can knock out a reasonably effective impersonation. However, Cox delivers one of the more effective interpretations of the man, playing up his physical and emotional frailties. The film concerns itself only with the period of timing leading up to the D-Day invasion- and there lies the rub. It is known that Churchill had strong reservations about the audacity of the Allies launching an "all-or-nothing-at-all" gamble to liberate Occupied France. However, the extent of those reservations has long been debated by historians. Churchill apologists have argued that his concerns were relatively minor and that he ended up being an enthusiastic proponent of the plan. His critics say that he whitewashed history in his memoirs and believe that he was reluctantly dragged into supporting the invasion only when it became clear that his objections were being overruled. The screenplay for the film is firmly in the second camp, making Churchill a man who was vehemently opposed to D-Day to the point of making himself a nuisance to Generals Eisenhower and Montgomery, who were hell-bent on taking the gamble. I don't proclaim to be an expert in Churchillian history so I can't address concerns cited by some other critics that the film exaggerates his objections to the invasion and the impact it had on the military and his wife Clementine (Miranda Richardson). She is portrayed as a long-suffering spouse who must endure her husband's constant temper tantrums and self-centeredness. This isn't a minor point. The entire plot is basically centered on Churchill's position on the D-Day invasion. The film does acknowledge a known fact: Churchill did favor a massive invasion of Europe but wanted the Allies to land in Italy, where they already had a foothold. His ideas were dismissed by Eisenhower in favor of using Normandy as the landing point. Although the film doesn't specify why Eisenhower rejected Churchill's plan, historians say it was because the fighting going on in Italy was proving to be far worse than anyone had predicted and the feat of getting an entire invasion force over so many geographical obstacles would have greatly slowed or diminished the effort. Although some critics have said that "Churchill" is a bastardization of history, there are scholars who back up the representation that Churchill was vigorously opposed to Eisenhower's plans for the Normandy invasion. As indicated in the film, he was haunted by the battle at Gallipoli in WWI, which he had planned. It resulted in massive Allied losses and Churchill was obsessed with not having another major invasion result in such casualties. What the film undeniably presents in an accurate setting is Eisenhower's momentous decision to trust his weatherman and approve the launch of the D-Day invasion, taking advantage of a sliver of barely acceptable conditions at sea. Half of his advisers told him not to do it while the other half told him he must. It's a scene filled with drama and tension- and one in which Churchill finds himself relegated to the status of bystander.
The anemic response that "Churchill" is generating among some critics is surprising. Many are calling it talky and not visually exciting. By that standard "Casablanca" would be considered a dud. The British film industry is going through a Renaissance, producing some of their best films since the 1960s. "Churchill" is an example of those achievements. It certainly takes artistic license. When you see intimate conversations being carried out in private between historical figures you have to recognize that the words are supposition provided by screenwriters. In this case scenes of Churchill and Clementine having frequent rows are not based on actual conversations for obvious reasons: no one was there to record them. However, they did have a volatile relationship that often resulted in loud arguments that were witnessed by household staff. "Churchill" does take the situation to an extreme with Clementine packing up her bags and threatening to leave him, an action that is probably a lot of malarky from a historical standpoint. Both Churchills were ultra-patriotic and it defies belief that they would consider causing a major scandal through divorce at the precise time the morale of the British public was finally being boosted. There is also a fictitious character introduced in the form of a young female secretary who, after suffering from days of verbal abuse from Churchill, tells him off and brings about a softening in his personality. This allows the film to present its protagonist in a more favorable light, given that up until this point he is presented as a Scrooge-like tyrant. However, this is the weakest aspect of the film because it is an obvious contrivance designed to appeal to modern female viewers. I cannot imagine any secretary having told Winnie off to his face- and surviving. That aside, "Churchill" is a powerful and engrossing movie and Brian Cox's performance is Oscar/BAFTA worthy. The supporting cast is all very good as well. I must also say that the modestly-budgeted ($10 million) film benefits from opulent locations, including magnificent manor houses. The direction by Jonathan Teplitzky is appropriately measured, low-key and impressive. He doesn't try to grandstand in any way and allows the film to be about intelligent dialogue and excellent performances. Special kudos should be extended to cinematographer David Higgs for his innovative and wonderful work that provides haunting images that will stay in your mind long after the film is over. Lorne Balfe also deserves praise for an impressive score.
"Churchill" is much like the man itself: flawed but highly impressive. The film is being distributed in the U.S. by the Cohen Media Group, headed by New York real estate titan Charles Cohen, who has invested a fortune in producing worthy art house films as well as preserving prints of cinematic classics. (He was portrayed in an issue of Cinema Retro.) In an age in which moviegoers are being bombarded by mummies and wonder women, it's good to know that someone is providing some alternatives that are designed to make audiences think instead of just selling them buckets of popcorn.