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by Jay Seaver

"Not his finest hour."
2 stars

The makers of this look at Sir Winston Churchill in the days leading up to Operation Overlord certainly have an interesting take, focusing on him as a worn-down man still mentally fighting the last war and thus timid about a Big Push, and it's initially intriguing to see him butting heads with Eisenhower, arguably a dinosaur more useful as a figurehead than an a nuts-and-bolts leader. There's a fascinating tale to be told in that which often gets lost in WWII hagiography, but this isn't the film that's going to present that.

It's not so much because of its Sir Winston. Brian Cox makes a fine-enough Churchill, though he's not exactly making the part his own, despite this take being as prone to bluster as inspiration. It is admittedly a performance that leans on familiar mannerisms and silhouette, so expect a lot of punctuating sentences with his cigar - it serves as exclamation point, period, and even comma. He's impressively matched by Miranda Richardson as Winston's wife Clementine; she gets to take on the mantle of being the smart, sensible one in the room and seed how difficult being married to a guy larger than life in this way must have been. John Slattery makes a good Eisenhower, although like Cox and most of the others playing military men, he often seems boxed in by history, getting the words out but not able to build his own characterization around them.

The most memorable bit, perhaps, comes from James Purefoy, who has maybe two or three scenes as the King George VI. His awkward stammer makes him seem more natural than the rest, and his sad helplessness is potent. Though this is Churchill's story, it's King George who articulates the frustration of wanting to do something concrete as leader but having to trust those technically beneath himself, and he does it with just the right hint of nervousness that the audience can understand Churchill not coming around quite yet.

Unfortunately, that scene often feels like a naturalistic island in the rest of the movie. Director Jonathan Teplitzky tends to stage Churchill like a school play trying to impress the audience with the importance of what they're repeating, with the script by Alex von Tunzelmann hitting the expected points. There are some odd choices made - the filmmakers reveal the idea of Churchill and George joining the Navy on the front lines like it was something Winston proposed desperately without consulting with the king, only to back off it in a way that makes not having brought it up before seem weird. They also stumble when introducing Churchill's bouts of depression, and it leads into an inspirational speech that isn't exactly bad but is at too precisely the exact moment it should be expected for the audience not to notice.

The general theatricality is often rather off-putting, and it's not just the way characters often seem to orate rather than converse. There's a lot of empty space in this movie, never more bodies on-screen than absolutely necessary, and Teplitzky's tendency toward wide shots often gives the impression of actors alone on a stage with fancy but sparse set decoration. As amusing as a bit where Churchill seems to be writing a speech but is instead preparing conversational material may be, it's a little less effective when it stops being a joke and simply becomes the way the film works.

And that's the lasting impression - "Churchill" feels like a play uncomfortably brought to the screen that cannot, in the end, fully commit to its medium and its different perspective. What starts out as an intriguing twist on the narrative of Churchill being the best man possible for WWII but lost outside it never quite comes together as a movie, instead winding up familiar material.

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originally posted: 06/02/17 15:04:16
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User Comments

6/05/17 Lynn Terrell Choice of actors for Churchill and Eisenhower were totally wrong. Inconsistent story line. 1 stars
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  02-Jun-2017 (PG)

  16-Jun-2017 (PG)


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