Unlike Sir Richard Attenborough’s 1972 epic Young Winston, director Jonathan Teplitzky’s Churchill is not a biopic. Where Simon Ward’s portrayal of the Great British statesman took him from childhood, through the World War One years, and ultimately to his first election win in Parliament, culminating with a rousing speech to his fellow Parliamentarians, Churchill’s scope is narrower. You certainly get to know the man in ways you may never have considered, but Churchill is not concerned with picking up where Young Churchill left off; it’s about those last few days before the Allied invasion of German-occupied France: D-Day, the operation that turned the tide of World War 2. More importantly, it’s about Churchill’s opposition to it.
It’s June 1944, and to win the war, France must be liberated. Operation Overlord was the code name given for what would later be The Battle of Normandy. It worked in conjunction with the Normandy Landings; D-Day, or Operation Neptune. But war-time Prime Minister of Gt. Britain, Winston Churchill (Brian Cox) is fearful.
Having lived through the first world war, and having earlier championed the disastrous amphibious landing of the Gallipoli Campaign, sending thousands of men across the English Channel for another amphibious landing, this time to the beaches of France, is a piece of history that should not be allowed to repeat itself. “The invasion of France is a deadly gamble,” the PM angrily declares in a meeting with Army General Dwight D. Eisenhower (a surprisingly effective John Slattery), “And it must be stopped.” “No!” responds an equally angry Eisenhower. “You, sir, must be stopped!”
Knowing that D-Day did take place, and knowing that, despite severe Allied casualties, the operation was a success and really did signal the beginning of Germany’s decline, the feeling of a ticking-clock counting down the hours, then the minutes, doesn’t have the will-he or won’t-he sense of suspense that early scenes suggest. After all, Churchill’s memorable BBC radio speech that followed and inspired the Allies to carry on is too well known to know that his refusal to support was never reversed. His support is going to happen, and that speech will be made. But that’s not what the film is about.
During those ninety-six hours from when Churchill opens, and up until Operation Overlord begins, we catch a glimpse of a man rarely portrayed; he’s exhausted by the years of leading and inspiring a nation to continue the fight, and now he’s fearful that a mistake he once made thirty years ago may be made again. “So many young men,” he sadly reflects while looking at the channel’s waves lapping the shore and imagining he can see the blood spilled on the beaches of the Gallipoli peninsula, “So much waste.”
It’s when he voices his disapproval of the campaign to Field Marshal Montgomery (Julian Wadham) and Eisenhower, with King George (James Purefoy) in attendance, that Churchill realizes, perhaps for the first time, that maybe his input is no longer required. After four years, leading the nation, ever onwards to a victory that has yet to be achieved, his role as Prime Minister is now more than ever to be a figurehead. “A puppet,” he angrily declares. His job is simple: he is now to keep out of the way and let the Allied forces do their job. But it’s a role he cannot accept, even though Churchill’s advisor and close friend, Field Marshal Jan Smuts (Richard Durden) tells him, “Being a great leader doesn’t always mean seizing the glory.”
“When was the last time you listened to anybody?” his wife, Clementine (a wonderful Miranda Richardson) asks. The answer is, of course, never, with the possible exception of his acquiescence to this king’s wishes that he, Churchill, will not travel across the channel with the operation in order to be seen supporting the men. And the only reason Churchill backs down at that point is because of protocol; his role as a servant to King George VI.
While each scene is a compelling one, performed in the construct of good theatre – Cox’s cigar-chomping portrayal of one of Britain’s most popular men of history is never anything short of riveting – there’s a tendency towards repetition. Before the weather changes and finally allows a window of opportunity for the forces to proceed, we hear every forceful objection Churchill possesses, delivered from every possible angle, time and time again before everyone he confronts. It finally gets to the point where even the audience may want to declare, enough; we’ve got the idea!
It’s only when he continually berates everyone around him, declaring in detail of how men are about to die for nothing, that a fictional character representing the voice of the people, stands and actually tells Churchill to stop. Ella Purnell plays Helen Garrett, a young woman hired to be Churchill’s secretary. It’s when she breaks her silence and suddenly states, “I don’t want to hear that the man I love, in a few hours, might be dead. And I don’t want to hear it from you!” that the room is stunned into silence. And it’s enough to give Churchill pause.
It’s more than likely that the PM’s change of thought never occurred like that. And perhaps by presenting it this fictional way the film has cheated us of seeing history as it really happened. But it’s a powerful cinematic moment. And by creating a character whose purpose is to speak up for the rest of us and to tell Churchill what it was we wanted of him in a time of crisis – symbolic, galvanizing leadership – then the fictional melodrama is justified.
“This is not a war for glory,” Churchill will say to the BBC microphones on his desk, “This is a war for freedom.” The speech young Winston Churchill gave at the conclusion of the 1972 film was a theatrical powerhouse, the kind that had recipients leaping to their feet and wildly applauding; a crowd-pleaser that brought the curtain down. The famous Normandy speech of June 1944 was different. The emotions were different. It was a speech to listen to; one that demanded attention. It was urgent, but delivered with a solemn, deliberate pace. It was what Eisenhower, Montgomery, and the Royal Family wanted to hear. And it was just what the public needed to hear as they gathered around their glowing tube radios in their living rooms. “We shall never surrender,” Churchill states. “And I… shall never surrender.”
If you cast your mind back to the 1962 all-star cast epic The Longest Day and recall wondering what was happening behind the scenes with the officers and why D-Day was taking its time to begin, especially when all the men were in place, ready to go, the void is filled in the smaller, narrowly focused but powerfully performed Churchill.
MPAA Rating: PG Length: 110 Minutes Overall Rating: 7 (out of 10)