Churchill takes place during the apex of World War II, but is not about fighting. It traces a few days in the life of one of the most important men in human history, and is named after him, but is not a biopic. This is a winsome eulogy to the excessiveness of war. A sad reminder that dying on a battlefield is not glorious but pointless. That no matter how badly you need to win, men and women still die, erased from existence forever.
Churchill is played by Brian Cox, who very much resembles Brian Cox when the camera kisses his face but miraculously transforms into the great prime minister whenever the lens widens and pulls out (thanks, I’m sure, to the sharp costumery by Bartholomew Cariss). He is haunted by the immense failure of the Gallipoli offensive of the first World War – a failure that ended his run in the military, nearly killing his political career – and protests to Dwight Eisenhower (John Slattery) and Bernard Montgomery (Julian Wadham) that their plan to storm the beaches of Normandy is foolhardy. Is he wrong? Of course not. Hundreds of thousands of young men perished fruitlessly on the Gallipoli beaches; Churchill foresees the pattern repeating in France and refuses to bear such innocent blood again.
This turmoil is the backbone of the movie, which at times drops sensationally into melodrama. Cox’s Churchill is not so much a leader with an iron fist as a portly drunk plagued by indecision and guilt. His exclusion from Allied affairs leads to tantrums that are tempered only by his wife Clementine (Miranda Richardson), who is tired of “living around your edges” and behaves very much like a weary mother disciplining a self-destructive delinquent. But again, Churchill is not about the man, or the woman, or the rickety relationship between them; it is about the unimaginable and often impossible choices leaders have to make in times of conflict.
This is the kind of war movie that sits very far from the violent flashes of Saving Private Ryan (1998) and pauses, sometimes too dramatically, to ponder the humanity of it all. There are some brilliant and genuinely moving exchanges between Churchill and Clementine, and some hilarious confrontations with his breathless team of analysts, sidekicks and secretaries. But director Jonathan Teplitzky never allows the gravitas of warfare to subside. As D-Day approaches and all the generals and tacticians convene to decide the fate of their men, we are held rigid with apprehension despite never seeing the front lines. It recalls the old adage that what we don’t see can frighten us more than what’s exploding in front of our faces.
I give Churchill four stars and yet I don’t think it’s entirely successful. The plot is written in such a way that remembering the order of events becomes a guessing game (Churchill meets with his American allies so many times the chronology of what they discuss gets jumbled up). The music services the mood of the scenes instead of supporting them. The closing scene is so sweetly ponderous it belongs in a fragrance commercial. What works wonderfully are the performances in making us believe politicians actually have a heart, and the illustrations of the mental and emotional terrors of war. Churchill might have been losing his grip toward the end of his career, but his heart was always in the right place. The Allies won, of course, but for all the dead men strewn about Normandy beach, that’s all the war ever meant to them.