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Review: Churchill (2017)

Churchill (2017)

Directed by: Jonathan Teplitzky

Premise: In 1944, the Allied forces prepare for D-Day. British Prime Minister Winston Churchill (Brian Cox) is unimpressed with plans for the invasion and attempts to insinuate himself into the military operations.

What Works: Winston Churchill is one of the most frequently portrayed historical figures in all of motion pictures. 2017’s Churchill distinguishes itself from the pack by taking a decidedly different approach to this man. The public image of Winston Churchill is of a bullish leader whose compelling demeanor guided Britain and the West through one of its most difficult periods. This image of the cigar chomping Prime Minister and his defiant public addresses has become engrained in world culture. The filmmakers of 2017’s Churchill deliberately try to upset that public image. Their goal is to strip away the legend and get to the man and they accomplish that. As portrayed in this film, Winston Churchill conflicts with American General Dwight Eisenhower and British General Bernard Montgomery over the D-Day invasion plans. As Churchill has it, the Prime Minister was opposed to the operation and agonized over the potential loss in life. This film does a few things with its subject that are very interesting and even subversive. First, it undermines the image of Churchill as a beacon of resolve. The Winston Churchill of this movie has doubts and he is haunted by the failure of the military disaster in Gallipoli during World War I. Second, this movie displaces Churchill as the tip of the spear against the Nazi menace. He is undermined and marginalized by Eisenhower and Montgomery who block him from leading troops into battle. These qualities allow Churchill to dramatize the weight of responsibility borne by those who send young people to fight and die. That’s rarely captured in motion pictures. Furthermore, Churchill is about a political leader learning his place and he ultimately discovers that he is the greatest asset to his country by being the icon that the people need. This is a smart film about the role of politicians and public figures in moments of crisis. The movie features a terrific performance by Brian Cox as Winston Churchill. He isn’t as fully transformed into Churchill the way Gary Oldman was in Darkest Hour but he’s also more naturalistic and suggests a more human dimension. This film also addresses Churchill’s relationship with his wife Clemmie (played by Miranda Richardson) and their marriage is given depth and complexity. Churchill’s secretary is given similar dimension. Played by Ella Purnell, she is more than a typist and through her Churchill comes to realize the importance of his role as a public figure. Ultimately, Churchill makes history come alive. The characters feel real and the ending does not seem predestined the way that it does in a lot of historical films.

What Doesn’t: Churchill has been criticized for playing fast and loose with historical details. Namely, the film portrays Churchill as opposed to the D-Day invasion. This was probably not true. The filmmakers manipulate some aspects of history but they do so for dramatic necessity and to do something novel with the subject. This version of Winston Churchill is bold in the way it breaks from the conventional portrayals of the Prime Minister and how it challenges the cultural icon that this man has become. But in order to do that, Churchill alters enough of the historical details that the character bears questionable resemblance to the historical figure. The production values of Churchill are not particularly extraordinary. The costumes, set design, and cinematography are all competent but they lack style. The plainness suits the film’s redressing of Winston Churchill but it all looks rather drab.

DVD extras: Featurette, trailer.

Bottom Line: Churchill may not have much to do with historical details but it is a bold reexamination of one of the most popular figures of the twentieth century. The movie bends the facts to make some smart observations about leadership and cultural icons.

Episode: #680 (December 31, 2017)