Director: Jonathan Teplitzky
Writers: Alex von Tunzelmann
Starring: Brian Cox, Miranda Richardson, John Slattery
Genre: Biography, drama, war
Recognize that face? That’s actor Brian Cox, though geeks may remember him as William Stryker from X-Men 2. With an impressive list of roles under his belt, Cox now takes on one that many have claimed to be the greatest Briton to have ever lived–Prime Minister Winston Churchill. Directed by Australian, Jonathan Teplitzky (The Railway Man), Churchill is said to deliver an unflinching look at the days before the landing at Normandy. With a wave of WWII-related films flooding our screens lately (Their Finest, Dunkirk, and Viceroy’s House) many of which have mentioned the titular figure, will Churchill paint the man in a positive light, or will Brian Cox be playing the villain once more?
I was fortunate enough to attend an advanced screening at Sydney’s Hayden Orpheum, which featured a Q&A session with Brian Cox and Jonathan Teplitzky after the picture.
Violence/Scary Images: This film is set during WWII, though no scenes are taken from the battlefront. Churchill is very much centered around the events that happened in the background, behind the closed doors of various boardrooms. However descriptive language is used to convey the horrors of war. There is a lot of yelling, and one character is slapped across the face. There is a hallucination where the surf is mixed with blood.
Language/Crude Humor: The s-word is said once, and that is about it.
Spiritual Content: An entire scene is devoted to a character’s prayer to God. It’s dramatic and demanding, with Teplitzky comparing it to something out of King Lear. Personally, it reminded me of Samson’s final prayer. It’s incredibly flawed and slightly selfish, however the character’s heart is in the right place, with the action revealing their acknowledgement that they can’t control everything in life. Farewell blessings in God’s name are also present within the film.
Sexual Content: None, thank goodness! He may have been well-liked as the prime minister, but I don’t think anyone wants to see Winston Churchill get his sexy on!
Drug/Alcohol References: There is a lot of smoking and drinking. Winston Churchill is one of the most famous cigar smokers in history. Brian Cox commented that smoking to Churchill was like thumb-sucking to a child. It’s his crutch; it’s how he copes, and what he hides behind. No exaggeration here. Churchill is smoking in every scene! For those worried about the actor’s health, rest assured, “They are electric”, Cox admitted, with Teplitzky praising the props team for their ingenuity. Churchill was also a heavy drinker, famously consuming champagne, scotch, and brandy with all meals throughout the day. The movie stays true to this, however his alcoholism isn’t looked upon favorably by other characters.
Other Negative Content: Characters undermine or speak about others in a derogatory fashion.
Positive Content: Churchill features a number of lovely themes, with some hard truths buried within the story’s message. One of the better films out there tackling the topic of leadership, it promotes the idea that being a strong leader doesn’t necessarily equate to always needing to take the charge. Instead, trusting in others to do their respective jobs is the mark of a good boss. The film focuses on an ageing man that is struggling to let go, for very legitimate reasons, with his regrets in life coming to the fore, but he realizes that he must pass the mantle on to the next generation. There is a lot of humility required in knowing when it’s time to merely step aside.
Winston Churchill was known to have a testy relationship with his wife, Clementine, which makes up for the film’s subplot. It’s bitter and at breaking point at times, and yet the characters do still care for each other. Churchill doesn’t depict a great marriage, though it’s one that will resonate with many viewers because it doesn’t undermine the hard work that’s involved to stay together when one is going through a time of crisis. Marriage isn’t easy, and Churchill offers an honest perspective. Depression does rear its head–Winston Churchill was one of the first public figures to proclaim that he was visited by the ‘black dog’ throughout his life–and not only does such a subject ground him with humanity, whittling away the myth, the fact that Clementine struggles and persists only strengthens the film’s refreshing brutal honesty.
Churchill may certainly be a film about war, though it’s questionable as to whether it can be included as part of the genre. During question time at the Hayden Orpheum, director Jonathan Teplitzky was adamant he wanted to create a different type of movie. With Winston Churchill being such an admirable figure in history, Teplitzky wanted to strip away his mythic status and simply portray the man that he was. Since the movie was essentially a character study at its core, the director felt that the story didn’t need to physically portray the battle on the beaches of Normandy, instead centralizing its focus on what was happening behind the scenes.
The vision isn’t necessarily a bad one. An external force creating significant inner turmoil within the main character is a construct that is executed magnificently in critically acclaimed films such as The King’s Speech and The Queen. With Churchill’s action jumping from one boardroom meeting to another, it’s also similar to the German film, Downfall, where the majority of the action is spent underground in the bunkers, with no actual warfare battle taking place on camera. However, try as it might, Churchill falls short of the success of the aforementioned films. It’s difficult to pinpoint where the movie ultimately failed, though it might be attributed to the following three factors.
Firstly, Churchill relies a lot on the audience’s knowledge of history. Since the battles aren’t shown on screen, they are therefore only mentioned. It’s not an issue in itself, except in this case it is the single motivating factor behind a lot of Winston Churchill’s actions. Teplitzky demonstrates Churchill’s regrets concerning his involvement with the battle at Gallipoli through symbolism and soundscape, though the true tragedy of the event holds little weight unless the audience understands the details. While this may be satisfactory for Australian and Turkish audiences where the events at Gallipoli scarred both nations, for American audiences the battle may not hold any emotional overtones at all.
Indeed, while it is normal for scripts to begin a story as late in the narrative as possible, Churchill may have opened too far into the future. Instead, it may have benefited with a snapshot of Churchill in his younger years, reeling in horror at the events that would plague him throughout the rest of the movie. Without it, the viewer might find themselves with little context to work with when it comes to understanding Churchill’s stubborn motivations.
Secondly, Churchill doesn’t feature a strong villain. Set during WWII and portrayed from the perspective of the Allied forces, the main antagonist is naturally Nazi Germany. Yet across the English Channel they seem so far away, and while this isn’t necessarily the case in real life, they feel like a distant threat in a narrative where they are never pictured. The story’s time frame is under pressure with the decision to launch troops being time critical, though the sense of urgency and its importance feels constantly diluted. With the smaller details such as the sandbagging of government buildings not being depicted on the set, apart from the army uniforms and the constant talking about the war, there is little to entrench the audience’s psyche into the time period. In many ways, Churchill’s battle is really with himself, though without any firm establishment regarding his past and with the external pressures feeling oddly distant, the narrative begins to feel hollow.
Lastly, the action is constantly blocked. To be fair, this is a movie about accepting the need to sit on the sidelines. Rejection is a major theme, and it’s done extremely well. Though it does become a case where producing a movie about being sidelined is great in theory but poor in practice. I’m torn because Churchill does a fantastic job in expressing and fleshing out its themes and core message, but it never manages to bolster the emotional weight it needs to elevate the narrative to a greater cinematic experience. Instead it becomes formulaic, with Churchill creating plans only for them to be ripped apart in the next scene. This pattern occurs throughout the majority of the first and second acts. Heartstrings are finally pulled thanks to an emotional performance by Ella Purnell, though by then it’s too late in the story. Much like Clint Eastwood’s Invictus, Churchill may simply not be the dramatic, engrossing tale that Teplitzky had hoped.
As hard as they try, none of the other technical elements can overcome these flaws that are interwoven with the narrative’s structure. There is some beautiful camerawork present in Churchill. Teplitzky intentionally balances scenes of intense drama with moments of stillness. The dialogue is tight and fraught with tension, yet with a simple pull of a camera’s lens the thoughts are equally conveyed during the times when no words are spoken.
The cast deliver stellar performances. Brian Cox admitted that he was shocked that he hadn’t worked with Miranda Richardson at some point in his career before, though on screen they seem as though they have known each other for years. Joking that it seemed slightly inappropriate for a Scottish actor and an Australian director to tell a distinctly British story, Cox remarked that it was an honor to play such a pivotal figure like Winston Churchill. Brian Cox’s performance is transformative and satisfying, though it isn’t extraordinary. It never becomes so immersive that the actor and character seem indistinguishable, such as Helen Mirren’s portrayal of Queen Elizabeth II, or Bruno Ganz’s frightening embodiment of Adolf Hitler.
Churchill may be one of the best films concerning the topic of leadership, though its lessons may prove most influential for older viewers. At the premiere session the audience was awash with silver hair. The story is simply just that little bit more special for those who can remember the Churchill era. With the titular character struggling with his growing sense of inadequacy, whilst haunted by his past regrets and what it means for his legacy, the story’s lessons are certainly geared for older generations. Unless you’re a history buff or are genuinely curious about the time period, then Churchill might be one to watch in the distant future when its core message may become more relevant. It’s a competent film though there are better, more emotionally-driven bio-pics out there.
+ Cinematography + Dialogue + Great exploration of themes
- Lack of context if the viewer doesn't know their history - Not enough conflict in terms of an antagonist - Plot feels repetitive
The Bottom Line
Despite its technical prowess and featuring a fantastic insight into an ageing leader, Churchill doesn't hit the emotional notes it needs to carry its story to the next level.