If you were asked – sight unseen as regards any trailers or marketing – to describe a Brian Cox-led Winston Churchill drama, odds are that what you’d come up with would almost beat-for-beat match what The Railway Man director Jonathan Teplitzky and first-time writer Alex von Tunzelmann deliver here. A serviceable and well performed drama, Churchill is perhaps best notable for its casting off entirely of the notion of a narrative arc and substituting it instead for a character arc. The problem, then, is obvious – Churchill doesn’t have a story, and a such plays more like a stirring character-driven stage play adaptation than it does a feature film, for which – it must be said – it feels far too televisual in nature for its own good.
The narrative aims its gaze at the ninety-six hours leading up to the D-Day, with Cox’s Churchill finding himself at odds with the military strategy of General Eisenhower (Mad Men’s John Slattery) and even his own King (James Purefoy). As he struggles to persuade others to postpone what he believes will be a bloodbath and pursue his own strategy instead, he faces a crisis of self-worth that only wife Clementine (Miranda Richardson) and new assistant Helen (Miss Peregrine’s Ella Purnell) can aid him in reconciling. But as the clock ticks down to the mission that could potentially end Britain’s chances to defeat the Nazis, can Winston find an alternative in time?
Even those with only a cursory knowledge of the Great War will be able to answer the plot’s overreaching question, but it’s that knowledge that outright hinders any would-be investment in von Tunzelmann’s tale. The cast meanwhile are as able as you would expect such a great cast to be, though they are rather saddled in the case of each piece of casting with roles that ascribe to each player’s almost stock performance. Did you love Slattery’s Roger Sterling in Mad Men? Good, because that’s essentially his role here. A Richardson fan? Strap yourself in, you’re getting classic Miranda and no more. Even Cox, whose physical presence as Churchill is note-perfect, really only gets to deliver the requisite Churchill turn that’s become almost obligatory for British actors once they reach a certain age and weight.
That’s not to say Churchill is in any way a bad film, it’s more that it differentiates itself early on from being a particularly satisfying movie. With low ambition and a televisual aesthetic that sees it feeling, more often than not, like a two part BBC drama given undue theatrical life, it’s a small scale venture that disappoints in offering little story but doubling down on character writing. Too flatlined an experience to settle on being either boring or wholly satisfying, Churchill is instead strangely forgettable – a disservice in light of a fine cast who deserve better across the board.
Churchill is in cinemas nationwide from Friday, June 16th; rated PG. Check out the trailer below.