Movie Review: “Churchill” reveals the human frailties of a Conservative icon

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If nothing else, the new bio pic “Churchill” can be appreciated for taking the marble bust that history has made of the man, and Conservatives have worshipped, and knocking it on the floor.

This isn’t his “finest hour,” but a countdown to D-Day, when “the old man” so responsible for rallying Britons when they stood alone against tyranny, found himself all but irrelevant — a hard-drinking meddler whose one thing in common with Hitler was the shared delusion that he alone should plan and lead, he alone had the big picture in his mind, that he alone could see the future and the real risks in “this great undertaking.”

And he alone, among Allied leaders, lost his nerve.

Brian Cox, screenwriter Alex Von Tunzelmann and director Jonathan Teplitzky (“The Railway Man”)  give us a Churchill who walks the beaches and has waking nightmares of his great World War I debacle — the invasion of Gallipoli, in Turkey. He gets lost in a no-man’s-land of the mind, recalling the bloody, grinding trench warfare that World War I devolved into.

He is certain it will happen again.  And now, 96 hours before D-Day, he is desperate to reopen all the arguments he’s made against it for two years — that the attack must be on a wider front, or with vast diversions in the Aegean or Norway or wherever.

That famous phrase that led to the grinding Italian campaign which is finally on the verge of seizing Rome, that the Germans can be beaten by attacking “the soft underbelly of Europe,” is trotted out — again.

And that’s when the fireworks begin. Because Supreme Commander Dwight Eisenhower (John Slattery) isn’t having it. And Field Marshal Bernard Montgomery (Julian Wadham) is given to muttering “old fool” under his breath. The Prime Minister may embarrass them in front of the King (James Purefoy), but he isn’t overruling Overlord, rattled as he is.

His wife Clementine (Miranda Richardson, quite good) senses that he’s figured out that the world is passing him by. All the lectures about the nature of modern war (Churchill fought in the Boer War, in Sudan, visited fighting in Cuba and Turkey and had both political positions of military authority and a field command in World War I) from his generals don’t sit well with him.

“Do you want to be coddled, Winston?”

Maybe. Just a little bit. The great wordsmith, who prepares his intimate arguments with the same care he gives to the great, memorable speeches, just wants to be heard and have his opinion respected. Those who have been around him for four long years of his stoic leadership, manic hours and sometimes drunken, outside the box planning and thinking, aren’t in awe any more.

Richard Durden brings patience and the ability to speak freely to Jan Smuts, the South African Boer who serves as Churchill’s aide/placater. Slattery is a bit more histrionic than we’ve been taught to believe Eisenhower was (He had a temper, though.),and does nothing to suggest the man’s pinched, percussive voice. Wadham of “The English Patient,” makes a believable leader as Montgomery — but not being short, not doing the sing-songy speaking voice, he robs the general of some of his short-guy-with-a-short-fuse bantam rooster strut.

The film hangs on Cox, and he makes a dynamic Churchill, not nearly the uncanny impersonation actors like Timothy Spall have brought to the part (Gary Oldman plays Churchill in “Darkest Hour,” due out later this year). Cox makes the most of the many human shadings which screenwriter/historian Von Tunzelmann (“Medici: Masters of Florence”) gives Churchill.

Being a movie, there are liberties taken with events, compressed timing and the like. Condensing Churchill’s arguments (which he had with everyone up and down the chain of command, up to Roosevelt) into 96 hours is dramatic, but a cheat.

It isn’t history that lets the picture down, but melodramatics and a general poverty of production. You can’t recreate the run-up to D-Day in a depopulated southern England, with Churchill dashing hither and yon in his un-escorted period-correct limo to empty camps and striking monuments where he and Ike get into shouting matches. The place was a beehive of activity, overrun with Yanks and Brits and by the way, rain.

With Christopher Nolan set to release “Dunkirk,” an intimate epic about the 1940 disaster turned into a triumph by Churchill and the chest-swelling spin of his military, “Churchill” seems a hasty addition to this Summer of War, with a valid point of view and portrayal, but without the budget or scope to be anything more than a lot of shouted arguments — a stage play with very pretty historical backdrops.

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MPAA Rating:PG for thematic elements, brief war images, historical smoking throughout, and some language

Cast: Brian Cox, John Slattery, Miranda Richardson,

Credits:Directed by, script by . A Cohen Media Group release.

Running time:

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