Anglophiles and history-loving filmgoers will adore "Churchill," an extremely well made film that is the best example of British heroic portraiture since "The King's Speech." As that Oscar winner did with King George VI, this biographical portrait seeks to distinguish Prime Minister Winston Churchill the man from the legend.
It provides a rare star turn for veteran actor Brian Cox, who can shift from big, bold and showy to quiet, understated and internal in the blink of an eye. His performing skills are at least equal to Sir Anthony Hopkins', yet he's typically cast in supporting roles. Cox was thrilling even so as San Francisco lawyer extraordinaire Melvin Belli in David Fincher's "Zodiac," screenwriting guru Robert McKee in Spike Jonze's "Adaptation," duplicitous CIA handler Ward Abbott in two Bourne movies by Doug Liman and Paul Greengrass, and cannibal genius Hannibal Lecktor (as it was spelled in the character's first film appearance) in Michael Mann's "Manhunter."
The film is shot in a vast, palatial setting, but the camera is never as well served as when it holds a tight close-up on Cox's remarkably expressive face. If his work here doesn't get him bestowed a knighthood, there is no justice.
Cox looks remarkably similar to Churchill and plays the old bulldog far better than Timothy Spall's woefully flimsy version in "The King's Speech." He creates a consistent and deeply complex character, an impulsive, brilliant, bombastic and frequently drunk statesman/politician. Director Jonathan Teplitzky's film is generous to Churchill as well as critical. It's presented not with the mark of a great historian but of a sound filmmaker.
"Churchill" presents the prime minister's foibles, follies and near catastrophic misjudgments in the final hours before D-Day. He was running the country but not controlling the war, feeling abandoned as events pushed him to the sidelines.
Churchill is actively opposed to Operation Overlord's amphibious attack on the French seaside. His urging of a strategy of assault against the Axis powers through the Mediterranean causes vexation and debates with Gen. Dwight Eisenhower (John Slattery), the Allies' supreme commander.
Churchill is haunted by memories of his World War I disaster. As the young, ambitious First Lord of the Admiralty, he landed troops on Turkey's Gallipoli Peninsula, a logistical and tactical disaster in which tens of thousands of soldiers were sacrificed in one of the bloodiest campaigns of the war. More than 30 years later, remembering those young men, he declares, "We must fix this broken plan before it ends in tragedy." Eisenhower sees no alternative: "If we don't win this, I don't know what kind of world we'll be left with."
We also get a sense of the private Churchill for good and ill. Miranda Richardson is outstanding as his wife, Clementine, shown here as a powerhouse with a limited tolerance for the great man's childish impulses. Charming one moment, throwing crockery the next, she is one of the few who can keep her Winston under some control like a nanny scolding an incorrigible schoolboy. When he and "Clemmy" have a serious row, he wonders, "Is this about the war or about you and me?"
Also noteworthy is Ella Purnell as Helen, a new typist for the prime minister. At first, she trembles under his volcanic temper, but then she draws out the benevolent old codger in him, twinkling with humor.
As he worries about the fates of the soldiers headed into battle on the beaches of France, Churchill laments for boys "too young to know how to be afraid." The film shows that the bravest man in England had his own fears.