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Brian Cox plays an exceedingly grumpy and bombastic Winston Churchill in the lead up to D-Day.

Graeme Hunter Pictures/Courtesy of Mongrel Media

1 out of 4 stars

Title
Churchill
Written by
Alex von Tunzelmann
Directed by
Jonathan Teplitzky
Starring
Brian Cox and Miranda Richardson
Classification
PG
Country
USA
Language
English
Year
2017

This supposed thriller about Churchill in the lead up to D-Day begins on some English beach where the old lion watches the tide wash over the rocks. Gradually, the water turns red and we realize that the blood of the boys who have died overseas is coming ashore. It's a powerful symbol of the carnage that awaits in France until Churchill announces, "I can't let it happen again!" or other similarly lumpy words, and the delicately evocative plunges abruptly toward the obvious. Director Jonathan Teplitzky is not one minute into his film and already he's spoiling it.

The idea behind this revisionist drama, which paints the British prime minister not as the great war hero but as an angry depressive desperate to stop Operation Overlord, is that the leader was fearfully anxious not to repeat the beach landings of Gallipoli, the disastrous First World War battle that he had ordered as First Lord of the Admiralty.

So as Eisenhower (a pleasantly upright John Slattery declining to imitate the famous smile) and Montgomery (Julian Wadham getting mileage from underplaying the part) get busy preparing the troops to land in France and push back the Nazis, Brian Cox's exceedingly grumpy and bombastic Churchill tries to stop them.

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The actor, best known as the nefarious Ward Abbott in various Bourne movies, does a passable impression of the familiar figure and a strong one of an insecure and angry man on the verge of breakdown, but his overbearing, alcoholic character is so thoroughly unlikeable you'll be utterly sick of him by the halfway mark.

When he doesn't succeed in stopping the invasion – don't tell me I'm spoiling anything for you here! – he falls into a deep depression from which he is eventually roused by a sentimental plot device involving his sweet young secretary. The script, written by neophyte Alex von Tunzelmann, is appalling, its plot simplistic and its dialogue alternating between misplaced bits of contemporary psycho-babble and improbable grandiloquence. Churchill prepares for every private meeting as though he was about to give a speech and, on his knees in prayer, addresses God as though He were Parliament. Apparently the man was quite an orator, don't you know.

Clementine Churchill is as utterly fed up with her husband as the audience will be, and Miranda Richardson does a nice sharp rendition of her annoyance, but scenes where she talks about not having room for her own life or actually packs a suitcase feel anachronistic and self-conscious.

She winds up back on that beach with her husband – I'm guessing it's supposed to be a psychic place rather than a real one, since the PM can hardly have been day-tripping to Brighton in the middle of D-Day preparations (although he is shown, more realistically, visiting troops somewhere near the coast). Anyway, Clementine wraps her mink coat tighter around herself and tells her impossible husband they have got to let each other in more as we now descend the scale from movie-of-the-week to soap opera. And then, thankfully, Operation Overstated is over.

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