“Churchill” opens with a somber Winston Churchill, donning his iconic heavy black coat and top hat, pacing along an empty seashore. As he leans to observe the bloodied waters, his hat blows away; he anxiously watches as it floats back to him on a dark red wave.
It’s a powerful image that will stay with viewers, one that best represents the film’s presentation of Churchill during World War II: the British prime minister, profoundly loyal to his nation, felt responsible for the war and bloodshed that afflicted his countrymen.
Directed by Jonathan Teplitzky (“The Railway Man”), the biopic is an admirable attempt to humanize a prime minister whose historical symbolism has an active presence even in modern British politics. Yet, despite the film’s compelling intent to explore Churchill’s thoughts and actions in the 96 hours leading up to D-Day, its conventional storytelling and slow pace still make it a lackluster watch.
Even from the very beginning, “Churchill” establishes its high-stakes circumstances. It is June 1944, and Allied troops are prepared to invade Normandy, France, to liberate the region from Nazi Germany on June 6 — a plan known among military leaders as Operation Overlord. Disheartened by the lives lost in the long war, Churchill (Brian Cox) is mortified by the operation’s possible failure, which could result in the deaths of thousands of innocent civilians. Throughout the film, he consults other Allied leaders, including General Dwight Eisenhower (John Slattery), and finds emotional support in his wife, Clementine (Miranda Richardson) — all for the purpose of deciding between initiating or resisting the operation.
The strongest scenes in the film are those that examine Churchill’s private life. Contrary to the strong, larger-than-life figure that is more commonly recognized, he is characterized here as a man whose emotional investment in his country left him vulnerable and morally conflicted. Scottish actor Brian Cox, who has long been interested in portraying Churchill, disappears into the role with ease. With sincerity and passion, he embodies Churchill’s internal apprehension as intensely as he does Churchill’s flair for powerful speech.
The rest of the film, however, feels forced. Scenes involving military strategy are not merely dramatized, but play out like reenactments from a documentary. Besides Cox, several other cast members come off as uninvested. While “Churchill” spends most of its time ruminating on its central theme of historical legacy, it lacks an engaging plot outside of its subject’s inner turmoil.
Although “Churchill” succeeds in developing a new angle on the prime minister, it remains too devoted to its repetitive central conflict to exhibit complete depth. It’s unfortunate, given the film’s potential to enlighten, that we end up pitying Churchill rather than admiring him.
Contact Anagha Komaragiri at [email protected].