The year is 1944. After years of war, the Allies are preparing to invade mainland Europe to liberate it from Nazi occupation. While the American General Eisenhower (John Slattery) and his British counterpart, Montgomery (Julian Wadham) are committed to a massed amphibious assault, there is one hold out – British Prime Minister Churchill (Brian Cox). Still haunted by the failure of the Dardanelles campaign in the First World War, Chuchill urges a more cautious approach, but the clock is ticking and, let’s face it, if you don’t know what happened you should probably crack a book some time…
Given the choice between the dramatic and the historically accurate, historian Alex von Tunzelmann’s screenplay tends to err on the side of the latter, which means we get a lot of terse conversations in gorgeously appointed rooms (the production design is marvelous), but not much in the way of rising tension. Given the ultimate, well recorded final outcome of the events, the on screen result is that Churchill as presented is actually an obstacle to the narrative, with his opponents clearly on the right side of history, while the curmudgeonly PM comes across as yesterday’s news – something he feared in actual life.
Countering this tendency is a towering central performance by Cox, who imbues Sir Winston with humanity, fallibility, and a palpable sense of genius. It’s well known that Churchill was a depressive and a drunk, but it’s a rare performance that manages to marry those aspects with his public gravitas and gift for rhetoric, and Cox nails it.
He’s matched in every way by Miranda Richardson as his wife, Clementine, who tempers Churchill’s melancholic rages with a mix of hard-nosed pragmatism and warm understanding, even in the face of his often cutting obstinacy. A lot light is going to be shone on Cox’s turn here, but the real value of Churchill is in the interplay between these two; if we didn’t have Richardson’s Clementine on hand to demonstrate Churchill’s humanity and fragility, we wouldn’t be left with much.
As it is, though, even their sterling character work can’t shift Churchill out of the mid-range. While a successful work of portraiture, it fumbles the narrative ball pretty definitively, plodding along to reach a long-foregone conclusion. There’s enjoyment to be had out of seeing Cox and company inhabit these roles – it’s just a shame they don’t have a better movie wrapped around them.