I always try to watch films with an open mind. I believe there’s something of value to find, no matter how challenging the subject matter might be. Also, because I spent over a decade working in the film industry, I know just how difficult it can be to get an idea onto the big screen. So I have some personal and professional sympathy for movies which don’t quite work as a completed product; I don’t believe in rating films 0/10.
But Churchill is a difficult film for me to review and I really struggled to watch it. This biopic, directed by Jonathan Teplitzky and written by Alex von Tunzelmann, covers the the three days leading up to the Allied assault on the beaches of Normandy, on what became D-Day, June 6th 1944. Seemingly haunted by his own trauma from WWI, and murmuring to himself that “I mustn’t let it happen again”, Churchill (Brian Cox) seems plagued by depression and convinced that the Nazis would immediately slaughter the Allied troops. He does all he can to prevent Operation Overlord from taking place, and tries to persuade the Allied commanders to abandon their attack. They didn’t, and the rest, as they say, is history.
Indeed, it is perhaps only history fans who will enjoy this film (and vouch for its accuracy - or not); for the average viewer, it may be more challenging. The script, as with the film itself, could have done with more rigorous editing. The story’s narrow focus and timeframe paints Churchill as a petulant, arrogant and pig-headed leader, with few redeeming qualities except one brief moment of emotional intelligence right at the end of the film, making it hard to enjoy the lengthy screen time of the central character, even with Cox’s stupendous performance. Miranda Richardson, who is excellent in everything she does, offers a strong portrayal of Churchill’s long-suffering wife, but is restricted to reacting to his outbursts; her character has little else to do and Richardson seems wasted. When much of the dialogue between central characters such as General Eisenhower and King George VI - portrayed by fine actors like John Slattery and James Purefoy - sounds unbelievable, then that speaks volumes.
Cinematically the film looks beautiful - and full credit to the production designer Chris Roope and cinematographer David Higgs for its lusciousness - but it suffers from overindulgence and dependence on quantity over quality, and the weak direction did not assist the story. What might have been a moving and possibly exciting film turned out to be a slow, brooding, long watch, and easily could have had twenty minutes of its duration cut. Tighter direction, better pacing and sharper editing would have benefitted the script a lot, and helped to drive things forward. Unfortunately, not even Cox, who manages to command an intense screen presence throughout, and is commendable for his skill in illuminating often dull text, can rescue a story which has been spread too far.
The narrative focuses on a tiny time period, attempting to illustrate Churchill’s life and personality using just one small sliver of his entire political career, and at almost two hours long, it stretches out the premise - and any believability - beyond a reasonable limit. As a shorter, 90 minute, stage play, rather than a film, Churchill could have been excellent, and provide a much tighter story full of real-life jeopardy. But drawing it out into a long feature film shows its weaknesses, and I’m afraid it’s likely to only be history nerds who will enjoy this.