Churchill is part of My Summer of Summer Movies, in which I’m attempting to see and review every single movie that opens (in Chicago) between Memorial Day and Labor Day. Read all about this ill-advised plan here.
I’m going to spend very little time on Churchill, the new (purported) biopic from director Jonathan Teplitzky. This is, however, still more time than you should spend on it.
Let us begin—without “spoilers”—at the ending. After the final scene has faded to black, Churchill—in common with just about every biopic ever made—provides us with gratuitously unnecessary title cards summarizing the outcome and importance of what we’ve just watched. Here, we are informed that the Allied Invasion of Normandy was a success—in case anyone didn’t already know—and that Winston Churchill is widely regarded as one of the greatest Britons who ever lived.
It is this last point that I find curious, for the entire film that precedes it seems cruelly and disingenuously designed to diminish, malign, and mock the legacy of this great leader.
Churchill presents itself as the “untold story” of the week before the D-Day invasion, and how Prime Minister Winston Churchill (Brian Cox) had grave misgivings about the plan to land hundreds of thousands of allied boys on the northern beaches of occupied France. The Churchill we see in the film is one haunted—almost emotionally crippled, in fact—by the mistakes of the First World War, and particularly by the hundreds of thousands of men who died during the disastrous Gallipoli Campaign of 1915–16. In the subtlety-free opening scene, we see Churchill standing on the shore, imagining a blood-dimmed tide rolling in at his feet. “Beaches always bring me back to that terrible day 30 years ago,” he helpfully explains to his wife Clementine (Miranda Richardson). “We must never let it happen again.”
And so Churchill sets out—through every means short of actual sabotage—to scuttle the D-Day plans before it’s too late. He takes his desperate, emotional argument to General Eisenhower (John Slattery), Supreme Commander of the Allied Expeditionary Force in Europe, and to Field Marshal Bernard Montgomery (Julian Wadham), commander of the ground forces, and to George VI (James Purefoy), the King of England. The commanders lecture Churchill—as if he’s an ignorant and naive old man—on how warfare has changed in the 30 years since Gallipoli, and how this invasion is the last, best hope of winning the war. But Churchill won’t get on board: “I will not be able to live the rest of my life with this on my conscience,” he says, about the impending disaster that he—and only he—sees coming. Finally, on the night before the invasion, he takes his argument to God, praying—in an absurdly overwrought pastiche of King Lear’s madness—for the cataracts and hurricanoes that might drench the invasion plans and prevent this folly.
One does not, I think, need to be either an idolater of Winston Churchill or a scholar of WWII history to realize that all of this is the most ridiculous nonsense. I’m neither, but even I was offended beyond belief by the suggestion that the Prime Minister of Great Britain would attempt to even tinker with—let alone thwart—the largest naval invasion in history on the eve of its execution.
And that’s because this “untold story” didn’t happen at all. Churchill did have serious misgivings about the plan—in 1942 and 1943. (At the Casablanca Conference in January 1943, he argued with FDR—persuasively, and almost certainly correctly—that the time was not yet ripe for a successful cross-channel invasion of Europe.) By 1944, however, Churchill was one of the enormous operation’s chief proponents and architects: it is absolutely preposterous to imagine him wishing and plotting for its abandonment in the final 72 hours of preparation. Screenwriter Alex von Tunzelmann has taken Churchill’s reservations, from a year or two earlier, and fabricated from them a shallow, eleventh-hour crisis of conscience, courage, and character that is almost comical in its insult and implausibility. (Tunzelmann has been almost unanimously criticized by historians, and lambasted in the British press, for this screenplay: ironically, she is a historian, and actually writes a column for The Guardian picking apart the historical accuracy of movies.)
I am not a purist, or a proponent of strict historical accuracy when it comes to biopics: some artistic license is assumed, and more license may be granted to a worthy purpose. But, honestly, the purpose of this completely eludes me, unless character assassination was the entire goal. The “Winston Churchill” the film presents is nothing more than a doddering old fool who has devolved into a spoiled, angry baby: he throws absurd temper tantrums, is crippled by anxiety and depression, and must be propped up by the coddling and condescension of everyone around him. (“If we can just make him feel he’s a part of it,” Field Marshal Smuts [Richard Durden] keeps saying to Eisenhower and Montgomery, begging them to treat Churchill like a hypersensitive toddler who wants to help make the cookies.)
And, in the final act of the film—having attempted to take everything else away from Churchill—Tunzelmann and Teplitzky besmirch even the unquestioned legacy of the great man’s famous speeches. Here, we find Winston going literally mute, and fetal in his bed, on the eve of Operation Overlord. He is only dragged upright and forced to reluctantly write a speech by Clementine, Smuts, and a young secretary (Ella Purnell) who happens to have a fella on one of the landing crafts. These three patronizing caretakers have to convince Winston Churchill—the man whose inspirational words carried England through the Blitz—that his job should be to provide the British people with hope. This sudden realization—which appears never to have occurred to Churchill before—is treated as the major epiphany of the film, the moment Churchill’s entire emotional arc has been building towards through all this hand-wringing and petulance. (Typically, when he finally hear Churchill’s speech, the film gets that wrong too, manufacturing a radio address and grabbing the “Never Surrender” line from the iconic speech he gave in 1940.)
On its surface, Churchill appears to be a stately and respectable period piece. Teplitzky is a decent director, and manages to capture some lovely shots. (Actually, he manages to capture variations of the same lovely shot, over and over: a lone figure, small in the frame, silhouetted against a lot of negative space. But it works.) And the cast is impossible to fault: Cox and Richardson, in particular, are unfailingly excellent actors who commit honorably to the roles they have assumed here. It is just a pity that their efforts are in service of a screenplay that is such pure, overwrought, unbelievable balderdash.