Churchill review: “history come to life in its most palatable and entertaining form”

Brian Cox portrays the British prime minister in all his drinking, smoking and swearing glory, as an appointment with D-Day looms

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★★★★

Winston Churchill once said, “War is a game that is played with a smile,” and that’s definitely the case in director Jonathan Teplitzky’s polished film, which offers a snapshot of the British prime minister’s state of mind on the eve of Operation Overlord, the name given to the D-Day landings of June 1944. 

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The film showcases a fantastic array of top-notch acting, spearheaded by force-of-nature Brian Cox, who gives a tremendous performance as the charismatic politician who inspired Great Britain to resist Adolf Hitler.

The tone is appropriately sincere, but there are touches of sharp humour and moments of levity here, including the almost childish delight Churchill takes in wearing his zippered coverall siren suit (which makes him look like an overgrown teddy bear) and the cantankerous way he treats everyone, especially the latest in a long line of flustered secretaries.

Much like the title of the film itself, this is an unfussy, straight-shooting and dignified peek at the great statesman. For epic battle footage, it would be wise to wait for Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk (in cinemas 21 July). And for a more upbeat portrayal, Joe Wright’s Darkest Hour would seem to be a good bet for the new year. 

But that would mean missing out on this precisely focused, heartfelt drama, which is skilfully positioned around one man’s self-doubt, depression and destiny. 

The film opens in striking style with the 70-year-old Winston staring at the ocean, lost in the swirling sea of bloodstained memories of his disastrous First World War command, which culminated in mass slaughter on the beaches of Gallipoli. Fearful of repeating the same mistake again, he just can’t bring himself to sign off on the long-planned Operation Overlord, despite a million soldiers being poised for action on the south coast of Britain, ready to invade Nazi-occupied Europe. 

Frustrated by his indecision, political opponents sharpen their knives, and finally a very irritated General Dwight Eisenhower (a brilliant John Slattery) and Field Marshal Montgomery (Julian Wadham) call on King George VI (James Purefoy, doing his own version of The King’s Speech) to intervene. 

Ultimately its Churchill’s unflappable, no-nonsense wife Clementine (Miranda Richardson on superb eye-rolling form) who, realising her marriage is also in crisis, picks her husband up from the depths of despair, dusts off the hurt feelings of indifferent parental rejection and starts him on the road to recovery from the physical and mental rigours of warcraft. 

The battle of the 2017 Churchills won’t be decided until we’ve seen Gary Oldman’s upcoming Darkest Hour. And comparisons will also be made to Michael Gambon and John Lithgow’s recent television portrayals in Churchill’s Secret and The Crown, respectively. But Cox makes the role his own. He doesn’t have to rely on his character’s unique vocal inflections or elaborate make-up to relay his short temper or defiant attitude in the face of accusations he’s not up to the job. 

Constantly drinking, smoking, flying off the handle and cursing, Cox is a very convincing model of the stubborn and righteous PM – his is a flesh-and-blood portrayal rather than just a bland figure reconstructed from reference books. 

Bolstered by clear-cut direction from Teplitzky, and with excitingly staged disputes over the controversial operation at hand, Churchill hits all the right notes, bringing a slice of history to life in its most palatable and entertaining form.

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Churchill is in in cinemas from Friday 16 June