“You know, there comes a time when even the greatest leader has gone as far as he can go.”
Winston Churchill was once voted the Greatest Briton Ever, beating out the likes of Princess Diana and William Shakespeare. Although Churchill had a staggering number of accomplishments throughout his long life, he is most closely associated with being Great Britain’s prime minister during World War II. That’s why the notion that Churchill vehemently opposed the D-Day invasion at Normandy in the days leading up to the pivotal battle is a provocative premise for this well-crafted, well-acted movie. The only problem is that it remains unclear whether that was actually true.
“This plan is for slaughter.”
Churchill begins about 96 hours prior to “Operation Overlord,” the code name for what turned out to be the signature victory for Allied forces in Europe. The goal was to liberate France from German forces and strike a key blow to Hitler’s plan. It’s a collaboration between American, French, and British leaders who concede that up to 20,000 lives could be lost during this single operation. That being said, everyone appears to be on board…except for the Prime Minister of Great Britain.
“I mustn’t let it happen again.”
The movie opens with Churchill (Brian Cox) taking a stroll on a beach and experiencing an unpleasant flashback to the carnage he witnessed during the Battle of Gallipoli in World War I. The story proceeds with Churchill clashing with General Dwight D. Eisenhower (John Slattery), Field Marshal Bernard Montgomery (Julian Wadham), and others as he forcefully advocates an alternative plan that might result in fewer casualties.
“You see, I think you’re trying to win the last war.”
Unfortunately for Churchill, he is perceived as a man who is past his prime and out of step with what is currently happening in the world. Churchill strongly ties the prime minister’s harrowing World War I experiences to his newer predicament in order illustrate that, not only is Churchill more sensitive to the loss of life than the average politician, but he has been fighting for a very long time. That tension has apprently spilled over to his marriage with wife Clementine (Miranda Richardson), who knows better than anyone how stubborn Winston Churchill could be.
“Don’t assume you’re the only one capable of making decisions.”
The movie is handsomely directed by Jonathan Teplitzky, who previously explored the traumatic after-effects of war with 2014’s underrated and underseen The Railway Man. Churchill is written by Alex von Tunzelmann, a historian taking her first crack at a screenplay. You figure we’d be in safe hands with an actual historian crafting the story, but that’s not necessarily the case. Obviously I wasn’t there, but there’s ample evidence to suggest Churchill did not object to Operation Overlord as strongly as this film suggests he did.
Naturally, the flip side of all this is that Churchill is a dramatic portrayal of historical events…and not a documentary. There’s no requirement for any filmmaker to depict historical events precisely as the occurred. That being said, the idea that Churchill’s past personal experience in war made him squeamish about proceeding with the D-Day invasion is completely valid. Where this movie unequivocally falters is with the basic notion that Churchill would wait until a little more than 3 days before such a crucial operation to express his extreme reservations. If Churchill was so violently opposed to D-Day and wanted to propose an alternate course of action, wouldn’t he do so much earlier in the planning process?
On top of that, the climax of Churchill could never be the outcome of D-Day or whether Churchill could stop the invasion from happening. (We all know how that turns out.) Instead, the dramatic thrust of this film becomes…Churchill’s address following the operation, and whether he can sufficiently lift his weary nation’s spirit. Cox absolutely delivers during Churchill’s pivotal speech and is overall quite outstanding in the role. By exploring Churchill’s wounded pride — Cox essentially plays him as a cranky old lion — the actor rarely lapses into simply doing a Winston Churchill impersonation.
The supporting cast is good, if underused. Richardson is a refreshingly calm counterpoint to Cox’s bluster. Slattery would’ve benefitted from a couple more scenes as Eisenhower to make him a more concrete philosophical adversary to Churchill. James Purefoy has a terrific, emotional scene as King George VI (without relying too much on a stutter), but I felt that Ella Purnell (as Churchill’s new secretary) is granted too much dramatic heft for such a slight character, particularly in the final act.
Churchill is presented in an aspect ratio of 2.40:1. The 1080p image is arrived at with an AVC MPEG-4 codec at an average of 38 mbps. The movie opens with a stark, overcast callback to the World War I battle that haunts Churchill; the bloody beach water is particularly striking when it’s contrasted against the otherwise colorless beach. Yet instead of settling for a London fog-gy gray palette, Churchill offers more than a handful of outdoor scenes with a warm and bright palette. Fine detail is very strong during closeups; not only does Cox’s Churchill makeup hold up, but the ever-present cigar smoke feels almost tangible. For a drama that largely consists of tense conversations in various rooms, Churchill manages to be visually dynamic in surprising ways.
The DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 track also goes above and beyond what you might expect from a talky drama. It starts with that opening scene on the beach, which offers some subtle atmospheric support in the rears courtesy of crashing waves and whooshing winds. The bulk of the rear speaker space, however, is taken up by Lorne Balfe’s mournful score; there is remarkable separation on display for the music in this film, with different sections of the score taking up residence in different parts of the surround sound field. (The bottom end is consistently up front, while musical accents peek out of the rears.) Dialogue is generally clear, even though Churchill’s gruff manner of speaking can make it hard to catch every single thing he says.
Churchill Behind the Scenes: (22:38) A very insightful and relatively comprehensive look at the making of this film. It’s particularly interesting hearing from writer Alex von Tunzelmann, a historian by trade who wrote her first screenplay with Churchill. It was also amusing to find that none of the cast members seemed to be aware of the fact that the real-life Churchill opposed the D-Day invasion. We also get a glimpse at the more technical aspects of the production, including the subtle hair and makeup tricks necessary to transform star Brian Cox into the iconic prime minister. Presented in HD.
Winston Churchill is having a pop culture moment right now. Last month, John Lithgow won an Emmy for portraying the prime minister in Netflix’s The Crown, and Gary Oldman is already getting Oscar buzz for his performance as Churchill in the upcoming drama Darkest Hour. So it’s easy to understand how this comparatively low-key project might get lost in the shuffle. It would be a shame if that happened.
While the movie’s historical bona fides might be questionable, the movie’s outstanding lead performance alone make this one worth a watch.