In terms of both narrative and nuance, “Churchill” has a limited scope. Director Jonathan Teplitzky and screenwriter Alex von Tunzelmann follow the English prime minister (Brian Cox) over the course of several days leading up to the D-Day invasion. Although that 1944 mission — dubbed Operation Overlord — was ultimately a success, Winston Churchill had his doubts, to the chagrin of the Allied High Command.
The film spends a lot of time dressing down its subject, yet “Churchill” celebrates him anyway. This incongruity is frustrating, and Teplitzky deepens it with one overwrought, predictable choice after another.
When we are first introduced to the title character, he is standing on a beach. The tide is red — at least in Churchill’s imagination, where he worries that the invasion will lead to a bloodbath. Churchill meets with generals — Eisenhower (John Slattery) and Montgomery (Julian Wadham) — begging them to find an alternative to a full-on assault.
Although everyone else, including King George (James Purefoy), agrees that it is the best shot at defeating Germany, Churchill protests and bellows, more out of ego than concern. Meanwhile, Churchill’s wife, Clementine (Miranda Richardson), struggles to shape her husband into the man her country needs him to be.
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As John Lithgow does in his portrayal of Churchill on “The Crown,” Cox plays the character as an aging, stubborn blowhard who can’t fathom why anyone might not take him seriously. Unlike that Netflix series, however, the perspective of “Churchill” is decidedly male-centric. Cox’s Churchill is so arrogant and contemptuous of modern military strategy that there is a perverse satisfaction in seeing Slattery’s Eisenhower knock him down a peg.
Teplitzky betrays his sympathy for Churchill, filming Cox with seemingly endless, fawning slow-motion shots, burnished by evocative shadows. Churchill is capable of listening to reason, but only insofar as it aligns with his own point of view.
The supporting cast is lively and clever, which only serves to underscore the film’s limited curiosity about its own subject.
There’s a personal component to Churchill’s reluctance about D-Day, as we learn from the film, which shows us its subject recalling the Gallipoli campaign of World War I, in which the English suffered catastrophic casualties. Eisenhower and others are quick to point out that a lot has changed in 30 years of warfare, but Churchill is too stubborn to acknowledge it.
He may finally rise to the occasion over the course of the film, finding the necessary poise and leadership that Britain needs. But if you read between the lines, “Churchill” really seems to be about a man who is fondly remembered by default, and because he was propped up by people stronger than he was.
Biography, at its most useful, disabuses us from myth, but “Churchill” has no such ambitions. As both history and entertainment, it’s a drag.
Rated: PG for thematic elements, brief war images, historical smoking throughout, some language. Starring: Brian Cox, Miranda Richardson, John Slattery. Director: Jonathan Teplitzky. Running time: 98 minutes. Theater: Flicks.