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20th June, 2017

CHURCHILL REVIEW - THE DAILY TELEGRAPH

"Gripping wars of words in this scalpel-sharp biopic" - a review by The Daily Telegraph’s Chief Film Critic, Robbie Collin.



What breed of political animal was Winston Churchill?Plotting the next step at Eisenhower’s headquarters

If this new biopic of the wartime Prime Minister is anything to go by, “a big one” is a reasonable start. As played by Brian Cox, he’s like a distant cousin of a brown bear or a Hereford bull, snuffling and stalking through his subterranean Whitehall war rooms, champing at underlings and barking at his reflection, while cigar smoke uncurls from his nostrils in great, steaming snorts.

In a low moment, he even describes himself as “a clapped-out, moth-eaten old lion whose teeth have been pulled so as not to frighten the ladies” – and Churchill’s commitment to making sense of its title character, and the historical figure into which he evolved, makes it less a period drama than a work of scalpel-sharp political taxonomy.

Rather than trying to encompass an entire lifetime, or even zeroing in on a defining test of character in the style of Joe Wright’s forthcoming Churchill biopic Darkest Hour, which takes place over the turbulent first few weeks of his premiership, Jonathan Teplitzky’s film plays out over the 96 hours before the D-Day landings – beginning on the “1,736th day” of the Second World War, as an opening caption soberly frames it.

By this time, the Blitz was three long years ago, and the Churchill who galvanised a nation in those terrorised times has become a marginalised figure in the war operation, while Field Marshal Montgomery (Julian Wadham) and General Eisenhower (John Slattery) plot Operation Overlord, the coming Allied invasion of Nazi-occupied France.

For Churchill, the plan smacks of costly old mistakes: specifically, the ruinous Gallipoli Campaign he personally championed almost three decades before. The result then was eight months of fighting that ended in Allied retreat and with more than 100,000 men dead, and the culpability still weighs as heavily on him as if he were carrying one of their bodies on his back.

The one terrain he still can’t be out-maneuvered on, however, is rhetoric – and we see his talents deployed to subtle but dazzling effect early on, in a speech he rehearses like a stadium-rousing set-piece but eventually delivers to a small but vitally important audience of one. This is George VI (James Purefoy), at a meeting of the Allied high command at Southwick House, during which Churchill hopes to persuade the king to back his alternative strategy: less a multi-pronged attack than an entire cutlery drawer of maneuvers, so as to outflank and outfox the Axis powers, and thereby minimise the risk.

The meat of Teplitzky’s film comes in these verbal confrontations, and its best scenes are all head-to-heads, whether Churchill is butting heads with Monty over a map of the Normandy coast, or grumbling at his wife Clementine (Miranda Richardson) – whose role in the creation and maintenance of her husband’s political persona is given welcome room to breathe. And while you don’t envy Purefoy for a moment in having to follow Colin Firth’s George VI in The King’s Speech, even at a seven-year distance, he’s quietly tremendous in a scene in which he dissects the strange inconsistencies of a leader’s wartime obligations: “My job is not to fight, not to die … I must exist. That is my duty.

Without wanting to overplay Churchill’s timeliness, let’s just say the film’s notion that true authority stems from complexity and compromise is a lesson Westminster’s Class of ’17 would do well to heed. Still, if any of them have unexpected spare time on their hands in the immediate future, there’s always a cinema trip.

They might also learn something from Cox, whose brilliant performance here isn’t a superficial Churchill impersonation – though the famous brandy-thickened baritone and lugubrious bearing are both impeccably reproduced – but a restlessly smart interrogation of the statesman’s image, and how the man behind it may or may not have measured up.

The screenplay, by historian Alex von Tunzelmann, is laced with Trainspottery detail – minor items of Churchilliana, such as his preference for a hole punch nicknamed Klop over clips and staples, are dropped in as character-revealing details – but it’s also refreshingly unafraid to pick over its subject’s carcass.

Churchill isn’t a stop-you-in-your-tracks reinvention of the biopic like Pablo Larraín’s Jackie: it’s still ultimately beholden to the genre’s good manners, with the obligatory pretty cinematography and music. But when Cox finally announces: “This is the Prime Minister speaking” as he delivers his D-Day address to a waiting nation, you understand the significance of those six words exactly – both what they mean, and what they need to mean in order to mean anything at all. Now, that’s escapism.

Dir: Jonathan Teplitzky; Starring: Brian Cox, Miranda Richardson, John Slattery, Ella Purnell, Julian Wadham, Richard Durden, James Purefo.

20th June, 2017

CHURCHILL REVIEW - LA TIMES

Brian Cox, in a towering, Oscar-caliber performance, proves the literal beating heart of “Churchill,” a superb look at iconic statesman Winston Churchill’s torturous days leading up to the pivotal D-Day landings of June 6, 1944.

The Scottish-born Cox, a fine screen and stage actor whose lengthy resume includes playing such diverse characters as Hannibal Lecter (in “Manhunter”), a closeted gay father and husband (“The Lost Language of Cranes”), Nazi official Hermann Göring (“Nuremberg”) and a charismatic pedophile (“L.I.E.”), uses his immersive skills to perhaps career-best effect here portraying the mercurial British prime minister — gait, weight, voice and appendage-like cigar intact — who led his nation to victory over Adolf Hitler’s Germany in World War II.

Churchill’s reputation — he was named in a 2002 poll as “the greatest Briton of all time” — has been countered over the years by those who considered the two-time prime minister (1940 to 1945, 1951 to 1955) to be a racist and an imperialist. Although that more controversial side goes largely unseen here, historian and writer Alex von Tunzelmann’s splendid screenplay does focus on Churchill as much as a man of failings as he was a symbol of strength and inspiration. The result is a riveting depiction of a leader at a crossroads emotionally, politically and maritally; equal parts bully and champion.

Cox masterfully captures Churchill’s contradictory nature, obsessive dutifulness to queen and country, and a volatility born out of fear, desperation and impending loss. At the same time, the actor stirringly rounds out his complex character with many poignant moments of quiet reflection and near-painful self-awareness.

With close to a million Allied soldiers poised to invade Nazi-occupied Europe via the beaches of Normandy, France, the film finds a deeply conflicted Churchill at odds with U.S. Gen. Dwight Eisenhower (John Slattery of “Mad Men,” excellent) and English Field Marshal Bernard Law Montgomery (Julian Wadham) as they prepare to move forth with this mission known as Operation Overlord.

Haunted by his disastrous command of World War I’s Battle of Gallipoli, which saw the loss of more than 200,000 Allied troops, Churchill has turned intensely protective of his soldiers’ lives as well as of his own historical legacy.

But the prime minister becomes even more acutely plagued by his inability to stop this high-risk invasion of northern France as he is sidelined in his leadership role by the capably gung-ho Eisenhower and Montgomery, who question the aging politician’s military relevance.

In a magnificent scene, the obsessively dutiful Churchill, who has decided to personally observe the D-Day landings from the ship Belfast along with King George VI (James Purefoy, deftly channeling the monarch’s notably impeded speech), is gently, thoughtfully told by his majesty that their places remain at home. But Churchill’s respectful acceptance of the king’s wishes does little to ease his mounting anxiety and depression.

Meanwhile, Churchill’s devoted, strong-willed wife, Clementine (Miranda Richardson), pulls no punches as she helps her husband of then-36 years navigate his roiling moods, excessive drinking and an eventual mental and spiritual collapse just prior to D-Day. Buoyed by Richardson’s first-rate turn, “Clemmie” proves a fully realized character: integral to her illustrious spouse’s stability and well-being, yet progressively aware of her own place in the world.

Ultimately, Churchill must pull himself together to present the kind of galvanizing D-Day address his countrymen — and the Allied forces — desperately need to hear, and he does so with confidence and uplift. As delivered by Cox, it’s a powerful, defining moment, even if it’s not quite the famed “We shall fight them on the beaches” speech Churchill actually gave on June 4, 1944.

Ella Purnell, as the prime minister’s earnest new secretary, and Richard Durden, as Field Marshal — and Churchill confidant — Jan Smuts, provide memorable support.

Director Jonathan Teplitzky (“The Railway Man”) has crafted a propulsive, emotionally involving portrait that’s aided immeasurably by David Higgs’ striking cinematography and Chris Roope’s elegant production design.

For anyone who thinks “they don’t make ’em like they used to,” “Churchill” is for you.

“Churchill”

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

Running time: 1 hour, 44 minutes

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