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Churchill Review – Never surrender

Well, it ain’t the hagiography that I feared it would be. After all that ‘greatest Briton’ nonsense the trailer be throwing out there it a wonderful surprise to see the portrait of a belligerent, castrated old man sacking everyone around him off in his futile attempt to lead a military campaign that gets pulled off just fine without him.

It’s hard to conjure where the idolisation comes from. I never lived through the war. Sure there’s those teenage years when you read about his witty putdowns of his political rivals and at that time his vices seem cool. You’re about 14 when you study World War II in school and you get the narrative of Neville Chamberlain’s incompetence, swooped and usurped by the heroic Churchill.

By the time you’re an adult you’re realising that those witty putdowns were all either misogynistic or xenophobic and his functional alcoholism seems far less amusing. I guess the argument being presented here is that the dude cared too much, but by the fourth year of the war he just didn’t have the power or expertise to meaningfully exercise it. As a result he just rages, unconstrained at the world, primarily those who lack the authority to bite back.

Brian Cox, for his part, gives it his all. You figure with a face like his he had to know that Churchill was going to be an inevitability at some point and he proper goes in on it. He’s unsupported here by a slightly awkward script by historian and writer Alex von Tunzelmann which has the tendency for the characters to spin off into their own monologues for a while (there’s a neverending King George one) or for everyone to get a little too discursive when talking about their past. There’s one point where Richard Durden’s Jan Smuts has to remind Churchill of their shared past together in the Boer War, it’s one of the most disastrous exchanges of late.

There’s also that tagline on the posters about ‘the leader you know, the person you don’t’ or something like that. It starts off pretty promising, you get to see the dude preparing in advance some off the cuff remarks to pull out when in conversation with the American leadership, it looks primed to explore the performative aspects of leadership and then it just don’t. Churchill in private is exactly the same dude he appears to be in public.

The film maybe overplays its hand here, from his first interactions his ruined pride and open desperation are clear to see. It’s clear everyone around sees him as fairly pathetic. They all just got their different ways of dealing with it, which means that Cox’s performance comes to twist around whichever figure he’s acting against in the particular scene.

The cigar a constant, he light it with matches too.

When he up against Miranda Richardson, playing Churchill’s wife Clementine, he’s amazing. These two actors play off of each other so good, capturing the delicate balance of power between these two. Richardson in particular amazing, able to imbue her silences with so much. Contrast this with John Slattery’s Eisenhower with whom every exchange devolves inexorably into a shouting match. Then, rising up comes Lorne Balfe’s catastrophic insipid misstep of a score swells, as it does after every single dramatic confrontation.

I wonder why director Jonathan Teplitzky didn’t keep a firmer hand on his actors in these moments. Slattery has proved by now he owns a monopoly on classy disdain, this picture needs more of that Stirling gold but we’re given no reasonable out to their disagreements, so it’s always score to montage. Tucci was initially considered for the role, I think he’d have had a firmer grasp on the material

The other notable relationship we got going on here is between Churchill and his new secretary, we’re told he can never hold onto them for too long. She, having grown up through the war, thinks this dude is basically their saviour. Their relationship is a typically abusive one. He constantly screams at and berates her for the smallest mistakes because his poor baby ego can’t handle the fact that nobody his firmest friend anymore. The men in the office just keep their mouth shut, obviously.

When it comes to the point though when she finally snaps at him he, as typical, gets all apologetic and wounded about it. You can see that scene horrifically butchered in the trailer. The film though, thinks it is enough, thinks their relationship all fixed now. It’s so tender about it all after that. It such a miss of the mark, even textually it feels like a complete misunderstanding of the script, the subtextual interplay between the only two women in the flick completely killed dead.

Like I’m betting the film was sold on the promise of its central image. Churchill walking down a beach, seeing the sea red with blood and he’s suddenly walking among the corpses on the Normandy beaches. It’s nice, and it pisses all that away for the opening title, then you stuck with the uninspired tack that make up the rest of the film.

I don’t like Churchill that much, I’m glad that this film don’t seem to that much either. Unless you’re already convinced I ain’t sure you’d find this one a compelling argument.

Churchill is currently screening in UK cinemas.

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Images courtesy of Embankment

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