Films have a tendency to turn in a trend to a particular point in history in a kind of reaction to modern society and politics. This year, there’s been an increase in films set during World War II, such as Dunkirk, Alone in Berlin and The Zookeeper’s Wife. For British film and television in particular, this has lead to a focus on prime minister Winston Churchill, renowned as the symbol of British resistance during the war.
Directed by Jonathan Teplitzky (The Railway Man), Churchill is one of the latest few, alongside Netflix’s The Crown and upcoming Joe Wright drama His Darkest Hour. Like other recent portrayals, this film shows Churchill to be a strong man who became increasingly belligerent towards his later years. A figure who prided himself on being a strong leader, this drama emphasises the fact that like the royal family before him, he found himself transformed from an official with power to a symbolic figurehead. What is unfortunate is that despite its best efforts, this film becomes too reverent of its subject, treading tired tracks instead of bringing anything new to the table.
Brian Cox is almost unrecognisable in the lead role, as the film follows the prime minister in the days leading up to the controversial D-Day landings in June 1944. Mad Men’s John Slattery also appears as American president Dwight Eisenhower, while Miranda Richardson plays Churchill’s patient wife Clementine. What follows is largely ponderous, as the film seems content to leave us in clouds of Winston’s many cigars as we spend at least two thirds of the running time watching static shots of his face. There’s also weird moments of what may be humorous one-liners – in my busy cinema screen, there wasn’t a chuckle.
Three plot strands weave untidily together, the first two looking at his relationship between his wife and fellow leaders, the third involving a fictional secretary (Ella Purnell) whose fiancee is fighting overseas. It’s a lazy plot device, done similarly in The Crown, to show Churchill’s inner heart of gold and emphasise that the war was felt keenly everywhere. The problem is that we know that the war affected everyone, and the secretary is so shoehorned into the narrative that her presence feels painfully artificial.
It’s also clearly been done on something of a budget, having been shot entirely in Scotland. Nothing against the country of my birth, but some of the locations are just too distinctive to pass as anywhere south of the border, when for historical accuracy they should. It becomes somewhat distracting and reminiscent of a television movie, rather than something for the big screen.
That’s not to diminish the best efforts of the cast. Although the script gives him little less than a caricature to work with, Cox does his best, although he’s unlucky in that John Lithgow has already done the role very well so recently in The Crown. Meanwhile, Miranda Richardson shines in a role than is very much under-served. For a fresh perspective that’s less tired, this film would have benefitted from approaching the viewpoint of Clementine Churchill first and foremost, as her frustrations and quiet dignity are fascinating when we get to see them.
In the end, despite how the prime minister has reached a point in his career where all he can do is come up with outlandish plans and shout at people he disagrees with, the film still throws him a free pass. Churchill is iconic and admirable in many ways, yes, but like all important historical figures, there are also unsavoury parts of his life and politics that have often been ignored in favour of reverence. Instead of doing something different, Churchill simply follows suit, excusing him of every action and bad decision. In fact, in case you’re left in any doubt, the closing credits point out that he’s been called ‘the greatest Briton’ of all time.
Recognition and admiration is one thing: glossing over the ugly parts to completely persuade an audience of the subject’s heroism is another. It’s time to approach historical biopics with that in mind.