With Joe Wright’s Darkest Hour still six months away, it’s impossible to tell how Brian Cox’s performance as Winston Churchill will stack up against Gary Oldman’s, but having now seen Cox’s exceptional turn in director Jonathan Teplitzky’s Churchill, I think the competition will be stiffer than I would’ve imagined. Churchill is a film driven entirely by Cox’s performance, and to that extent, it works. Where the film falls short is in story and style, so whether or not Cox alone can make up for these deficiencies is a subject open to debate.
Set during the 96-hour period leading up to the D-Day offensive, Churchill shows the British prime minister as a man wearied by a half-decade of war, increasingly marginalized by American involvement and plagued by depression. Cox seems to have the time of his life playing Churchill, imbuing the character with pathos and humor that render him a relatable, multidimensional character even as the narrative dismantles the heroic legend surrounding Churchill himself.
This historical revisionism is unquestionably well-researched, with a script from British historian and author Alex von Tunzelmann providing a refreshing perspective on an oft-examined subject — but her lack of experience as a screenwriter and her insistence on historical verisimilitude leaves Cox’s Churchill with few notes to play beyond beleaguered ineffectuality and no major turning point to redeem the character, shortcomings that leave her version of Churchill on shaky ground as a protagonist.
While there is promise in von Tunzlemann’s narrative approach — focusing on Churchill’s objections to the planned Normandy invasion, doubts that originated in the needless bloodshed he witnessed in the failed invasion of Gallipoli during World War I — director Teplitzky never manages to convey this internal landscape visually. With the exception of an opening fantasy sequence that cuts jarringly and inexplicably from color to black-and-white, the film looks aesthetically just like every other period melodrama you’ve ever seen. While he never develops any compelling sense of cinematic dynamism, Teplitzky at least has the good sense to defer to Cox, giving his performance the room to breathe it so clearly deserves.
If it hasn’t been made clear at this point, Churchill is every inch the Brian Cox show. Miranda Richardson is underused as Churchill’s wife, Clementine, being given little more to do here than nag and berate, while John Slattery’s Dwight Eisenhower and Julian Wadham’s Field Marshal Montgomery are similarly one-note antagonists. But the supporting players are here to serve one purpose — to elevate Cox to the fore — and in that modest task, they succeed admirably.
Cox’s transformation is remarkable, and though I never would’ve thought of him for the role on the basis of his work in films like, say, Super Troopers or Manhunter, his Churchill is so convincing that it’s difficult to imagine how I could’ve missed such a casting masterstroke. While the film itself may not be a definitive work on the subject, Cox’s performance will certainly be on the shortlist of the best portrayals of a man frequently portrayed. Whether or not that warrants the price of admission in your estimation is a question best left to you. Rated PG for thematic elements, brief war images, historical smoking throughout and some language. Opens Friday at Fine Arts Theatre.