The scope of this slice of wartime history is so small, it’s almost the movie equivalent of a one-man show. There are perhaps only a dozen speaking roles. Brian Cox is impressive as The Man Who Saved England in its Darkest Hour, but the drama reduces both the man and the historical crisis to trivial status, as little more than a personal emotional crisis: “Winston, the Haunted Imperialist.”
Cohen Media Group
2017 / Color / 2:39 widescreen / 105 min. / Street Date October 3, 2017 / 30.99
Starring: Brian Cox, Miranda Richardson, John Slattery, Ella Purnell, Julian Wadham, Richard Durden, James Purefoy.
Cinematography: David Higgs
Film Editor: Chris Gill
Original Music: Lorne Balfe
Written by Alex von Tunzelmann
Produced by Claudia Bluemhuber, Nick Taussig, Piers Tempest, Paul Van Carter
Directed by Jonathan Teplitzky
No, it isn’t Gary Oldman as Winston Churchill … that’s another movie, Darkest Hour. This is the Brian Cox Churchill movie.
Any chance to see actor Brian Cox perform is to be welcomed; I came to recognize him late (in 1995’s Rob Roy) but did a back-track whenever his name showed up. He’s even in the 1971 Nicholas and Alexandra, all but unrecognizable as Leon Trotsky! On that basis this year’s Churchill, a compressed drama about the English Prime Minister’s experience on the eve of Disembarkation Day Europe, 1944 is fun to watch.
There’s not much else to recommend the movie. Other critics have already drubbed it for misrepresenting history and Churchill’s character. A featurette accompanying the Blu-ray touts the screenwriter Alex von Tunzelmann as a historical expert who concentrates on details. But we’re told that the basic premise of the story is simply not true.
The movie’s events stick closely with Sir Winston Leonard Spencer-Churchill (Brian Cox), who as a Prime Minister personifying the defiant spirit of nationalism, led his nation through the dark nights of The Blitz. But in June ’44 he’s irrelevant to the war effort, which is in the hands of the Allied High Command under the leadership of American General Eisenhower (John Slattery). In reasonable health, chomping his cigars and taking long walks on the beach, Winston agonizes over the possibility that D-Day will be a fiasco; he has visions of beach water running red and sands strewn with dead bodies. He berates his small staff and his young secretary Helen Garrett (Ella Purnell) before protesting to the High Commanders Eisenhower and Montgomery (Julian Wadham) that the invasion needs to be delayed in favor of a new front in Norway, or in Greece, ‘the soft underbelly of Europe.’ Sir Winston’s unrealistic interference is most unwelcome, and for a few days Ike and Monty have little choice but to tell him to butt out, and that if he goes public with these views his actions will be treasonous. Churchill’s personal high-command aide Jan Smuts (Richard Durden) barely keeps the old man in line. The only person who can penetrate Sir Winston’s hide is his wife Clementine (Miranda Richardson). Even she grows weary of calming the waters after his abusive tirades. Clementine threatens to leave, just before the 6th of June.
I find Brian Cox’s performance to be highly watchable, but Churchill is quite a shock, especially after being led to expect an intimate account of the great man’s tribulations at a crucial point in history. Unless dozens of critics are mistaken, very little in the movie has a bearing on the facts. Churchill was not adamantly opposed to D-Day, although earlier in the war he had opposed a direct invasion of France. He was an irascible, troublesome coot, but no more so than when he was the country’s morale-building titan of patriotism. Historians don’t imply that he was the nearly out of control nervous case seen here — his speeches were still marvelous examples of world-class oratory and he would never have issued a word to harm the approved direction of the daring, desperate Allied effort. Are Sir Winston’s grave doubts as expressed in Churchill something gleaned from private letters? We’re told that the screenwriter compressed events over time, but this seems a grave distortion. I have a feeling that by 1944 Sir Winston would be checking in on the war effort daily, but spending most of his time in diplomatic labors, figuring out the best way to steer his country after the (presumed) victory. The future relationships with his contentious allies were surely on his mind, and he was surely weighing strategies to keep his party in full power. Churchill must also have been trying to figure out how to keep the British Empire intact. . . colonies like India all but linked their cooperation in the war to future promises of independence.
The emotional basket case we see in Churchill doesn’t seem capable of a clear thought on any of those issues.
Some politically minded critics might prefer that any movie about Winston Churchill bring out his alleged complicity in the Bengal Famine of 1943; which is charged as a war crime here and refuted here as a distortion of the facts. I would have been satisfied for Churchill to be anything more than a sentimental look at a near-senile man finding his bearings. The trivialization in this screenplay is galling. Sir Winston’s petty tantrums are finally quelled at a pitifully weak dramatic turning point: while wailing about the Tommies that will die on Normandy beach, his secretary protests that her fianceé is to be one of the invaders, and she doesn’t want to hear that he’s doomed.
As if struck by a bolt of insight, Churchill then does a complete turnaround, all but apologizing to the woman and rededicating himself to the mission given him by Destiny: to boost morale. Sir Winston’s speech for the first report of D-Day is worthy of the greats. He (or, Brian Cox) delivers it with such verve that any German listening couldn’t be blamed for changing sides.
Also surprising is how small-scale the movie is. The show is impeccably filmed and smoothly directed, but the production value is at the Edgar Ulmer-PRC level. We see Sir Winston in single rooms and in meetings with only six or seven commanders attending; one would think that even the pre-dawn briefings with the high commanders would have fifty adjutants along, with an army of retainers just out of earshot, to tend to them. The first meeting is on the lawn of an estate, and looks like a costume test: we see only Churchill, Smuts, Eisenhower, Montgomery and a couple other generals. The King (James Purefoy) is in attendance as well, ‘on his way to launch a ship.’ A couple of old cars painted gray are present as well.
When Churchill runs into the King again, the background is the foyer of some large public building. I’m not saying that this show needs a big production, or a dense documentary background like Overlord. One of my favorite WW2 pictures about the dynamics of command is the near-minimalist James Cagney movie about Bull Halsey, The Gallant Hours. But even the wartime-set The Dresser stages one ‘big’ scene in a railroad station to remind us that there’s a war on. Things are so threadbare here that we’d believe that the script was originally a tiny stage production for three or four actors. Churchill spends a lot of time on that beach.
I mean, really. The way Churchill is ignored, coddled and finally lectured to, one would think that his tirades would land him in a loony bin, or that the Crown would be extremely unwilling to let him go on the air. The character as presented doesn’t remind us so much of Churchill as it does Albert Finney channeling Sir Donald Wolfit in The Dresser — he’s a borderline non-functioning personality on the verge of a breakdown.
Brian Cox is excellent with all this fuming and carrying on. Maybe he was a screamer when away from the newsreel cameras? It doesn’t help that the images we have of Sir Winston always show him in the best light — he or someone taking care of him was highly image conscious. The old man’s eleventh-hour conversion certainly feels good. After reconciling with his secretary he charges harging back as the lion of the airwaves, a man capable of motivating an entire nation.
The other standout in the cast is Miranda Richardson, who puts a depth of understanding, feeling and endless tolerance into her scenes. Clementine Churchill comes off as a fine lady more insightful than her famous husband. John Slattery’s Eisenhower and Julian Wadham’s Montgomery are very thinly constructed. Eisenhower was a tip-top C.E.O. in charge of a huge military operation, an incredibly efficient delegator of responsibility. When those pre-dawn meetings occurred, decisions had already been made. I can’t see either commander directly voicing the kinds of slights and reprimands to the Prime Minister — that’s what five levels of diplomats and Army brass are for.
The Cohen Media Group’s Blu-ray of Churchill is a handsome encoding of this attractive show. We like watching Brian Cox perform; in a different show he’d be as good a Winston Churchill as any actor I’ve seen.
The disc includes the film producer’s promo featurette, assuring us how authentic is everything we see. A trailer is included as well.
Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
Supplements: Making-of featurette
Deaf and Hearing-impaired Friendly? YES; Subtitles: English (feature only)
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: September 26, 2017
Text © Copyright 2017 Glenn Erickson