When I interviewed Timothy Spall recently, we talked about how actors of a certain age seem to be playing Winston Churchill as regularly as their younger colleagues are playing Hamlet. Spall had his turn as Churchill in “The King’s Speech” and at the closing ceremony of the London Olympics. John Lithgow had the role on television in Netflix’s “The Crown”. And now there are two new feature films about Churchill’s premiership during the second world war: “Darkest Hour”, starring Gary Oldman and due in November, and “Churchill”, starring Brian Cox and released in Britain this week. “They’re all different takes,” Spall told me. “A person is a piece of music, and if they’re in history, everyone gets a chance to put their instrument around it and play it.”
Because Churchill was a particularly rich piece of music, Spall argued that the only sensible thing for any film to do was to focus on one part of his life and leave the rest of it to someone else. Despite its monumental title, the focus of “Churchill” is narrow indeed. It’s all set in 1944, in the weeks leading up to the Normandy landings. At the beginning, Churchill is preparing to fine-tune the operation’s plans with General Eisenhower (John Slattery), Field Marshal Montgomery (Julian Wadham) and George VI (James Purefoy), who are shocked when he declares that these plans should be scrapped. Haunted by memories of the Gallipoli campaign 30 years earlier, he is afraid that D-Day might end in a similar slaughter.
He expresses this fear, repeatedly, throughout the film. Again and again the British bulldog barks at Eisenhower and Montgomery, insisting that their strategy is disastrously flawed. Again and again they ask him, with increasing irritation, to sod off and write some speeches while they get on with winning the war. Meanwhile, various other colleagues mutter about how deluded he is, and his wife Clementine (Miranda Richardson) keeps scolding him for shouting at his underlings. I lost count of the times she bustled into an office, lips pursed and chin high, and curtailed one of his rants by snapping, “Winston!”
A portrait of a doddering, irrelevant, self-centred and wrongheaded buffer who achieves precisely nothing, “Churchill” devotes an inordinate amount of time to his quixotic scheme to sail to Normandy on HMS Belfast, and to charge onto a French beach alongside George VI. Cinematic conventions being what they are, I assumed that some good would come of this crackpot idea – that someone, somewhere would find it inspiring. That doesn’t happen. Churchill’s pipe dream fizzles out when the King orders him, in the gentlest possible terms, to stop being so stupid. To quote Clement Attlee, “50% of Churchill is genius, 50% bloody fool.” The film concentrates on the latter 50%. By the end, the caption reminding us that he is often named the “greatest Briton of all time” seems almost sarcastic.
Not quite, though. It might have been interesting if the director, Jonathan Teplitzky, and screenwriter, Alex von Tunzelmann, had had the courage of their convictions, and allowed “Churchill” to be a merciless hatchet job. But even as they portray their subject as a meddlesome liability, they stick to the traditions of a stuffily reverential, middlebrow biopic. For every scene showing Churchill to be a hasbeen, there is a lecture about what a titan he is. For every shot of him bumbling around the Cabinet War Rooms, getting in everyone’s way, there’s another of him standing in a field or on a beach, cigar in hand, as if he is posing for one of his statues.
“Churchill” has plenty of other problems. Cox has the heft and authority required for the title role, but he can’t get rid of his own Dundee burr. And the budget is so limited that when Eisenhower delivers a rousing speech to his troops, there are fewer soldiers in attendance than there are in an episode of “Dad’s Army”. But the film’s fatal flaw is that it can’t decide whether to build Churchill up or to knock him down.
The result of this indecision is that some viewers will be appalled to see him belittled, and others will be nauseated to see him canonised, but the only people who are likely to enjoy “Churchill” are the producers of “Darkest Hour”. They’ll be reassured that their own imminent film doesn’t have much competition. If a person is a piece of music, Teplitzky and his team have played it off-key.