Much has been said about British Prime Minister Winston Churchill. From his articulate and fiery maxims to his dogged strategies and tortured reluctance during World War II. Giant, voluminous biographies have been written about the man. Even if you’re not a history enthusiast, you have the cigar-chomping politician’s visage forever branded in your mind. Large hat, wry smirk, slightly uneven bow tie. A lion built for growling, not for speed. From his time in the Great War to his greatest test in the 1940s, there’s enough material on the former Prime Minister to create a ten season HBO series (Steven Spielberg is probably making one right now). In Jonathan Teplitzky’s Churchill, the director focuses his narrative on the Normandy invasion. Instead of the confident and public Winston, we see a weary and fatigued elder statesman in the throes of emotional duress. Playing the part of Churchill is Brian Cox, an actor whose extreme temperament and no-nonsense approach to character acting usually finds him playing bar owners, drunken neighbors, or ornery fathers. Here, the thespian is asked to bellow to the heavens while also showing very raw vulnerability. A line he walks with heavy steps.
Teplitzsky’s Churchill is dour, maudlin, and inescapably self-important. From the brutally overt sentimentality to the clumsy metaphors, Alex von Tunzelmann’s script feels insecure in its need to constantly wax existential. Disembodied screams are heard, operatic measures are had, and color as motif is employed ad nauseam. It’s as if Teplitzsky was overwhelmed by the subject he, alone, had chosen.
Soppy direction aside, the casting finds itself in a curious sinkhole. Brian Cox’s version of Winston Churchill is more Albert Finney than the late Prime Minister in which he attempts to channel. The actor bays, wags his finger, and sinks into his oversized ensembles. There’s never a moment when Cox truly transforms into the historical figure in which he plays. Meanwhile, John Slattery positions himself as an alternate dimension Dwight Eisenhower. The Mad Men actor and independent director uses his playful snark and unflappable posture to make Ike a sort of ad man firecracker (he cant get away from his role as Roger Sterling). There’s too much going on here to sustain disbelief for any longer than twenty-seconds at a time. This world simply does not feel lived in.
While this will not be the last dart throw at Winston Churchill’s life, this film will certainly be one of the more quizzical takes on the English figure’s storied career. Churchill simply does not say enough for all of the desperate emoting it does. The movie’s music palpitates, groans, and cries while the actors internally scream and throw plates — but what does it all mean when there’s no dedicated direction? This is an MS paint version of the politician’s emotional battles. If you were hoping for a conclusive or harrowing snapshot of Churchill’s turmoil, this is not it.