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Brian Cox blows smoke in the inane World War II drama Churchill

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The pathologically middlebrow Churchill portrays the British prime minister during the lead-up to D-Day in the stiffly prosaic style, often associated with British TV productions, that reckons that nothing clears the stale textbook smell out of the room like watching some historical personage put their clothes on. Even the good historical-biographical dramas are guilty of this—the faux candid peek behind the staged pageantry of the past, conveyed through the buttoning of buttons and the lacing of corsets in front of a full-length mirror, because actually showing Abraham Lincoln or whoever shitting, screwing, or doing anything else that requires unsimulated disrobement would be in bad taste. And so, here you have Winston Churchill at 10 Downing Street days before the Normandy landing, standing in his sock garters and his droopy salmon-pink boxer shorts in front of the mirror, revising a speech out loud even as he picks out his trousers. The similarly inclined “Great Man” snoozefest Hyde Park On Hudson at least had the chutzpah to include a scene in which Franklin Delano Roosevelt received the lamest hand job in film history. The closest Churchill director Jonathan Teplitzky (The Railway Man) comes to humanizing his lionized subject is in a brief close-up that shows the British Bulldog fastening his famous zippered shoes—the one aspect of the man’s sartorial image that really merits interest—with the help of a long metal hook. Even his hat, he puts on in slow motion.


If only the sole purpose of Churchill weren’t to take ol’ Winnie off the plinth and make him seem like a little more of a flesh-and-blood man—a goal the movie fails on account of being inert, decorous, and almost absurdly repetitive. Played capably by Brian Cox, this is Churchill the micro-managing, bullheaded know-it-all, who can play mall Santa to a secretary one moment and then tear her a new one over a typo the next. In theory, that’s a noble enough act of de-mystification, but Alex Von Tunzelmann’s script is premised on the idea that Churchill’s piss-poor sense of military strategy and the disaster of the World War I Gallipoli campaign were somehow proof of his greatness. Which is to say that, like the pseudo-intimacy instilled by the sight of Churchill squeezing into his waistcoat or sleeping on the floor surrounded by papers, the movie’s characterization of the prime minister as a moody dick is just a flourish for show. With South African prime minister Jan Smuts (Richard Durden) acting as his glorified body man, he harrumphs from one smoky stateroom of history to another, meeting with the likes of Dwight Eisenhower (John Slattery, for some reason), Bernard Montgomery (Julian Wadham), and the stuttering King George VI (James Purefoy) and taking the occasional moment to be talked down to by his wife, Clementine (Miranda Richardson). The whole dramatic thesis of the film is that Churchill is too haunted by the death toll at Gallipoli to believe that the D-Day landing can succeed.

Of course, there is no urgency here—partly because the audience knows that he’s wrong because they aren’t living in some kind of Man In The High Castle reality, and partly because most of Churchill consists of the same basic argument being repeated around those grand staircases and manorial gardens that represent all eras of the past in tony costume dramas. The result is monotonous, its only memorable image being the salacious wink of Cox’s open fly, mid-frame during a shot of Churchill getting out a car. (Presumably this was the best take.) All too often, it toes the line that separates legitimately stupid movies from ones that merely presume that the viewer is stupid. It opens with Churchill hallucinating a tide of blood and stage-muttering to himself like the star of an awful one-man show (“Beaches. Always bring it back. Almost 30 years ago now. So many young men.”) and includes such graceful expository dialogue as, “This is our last briefing on Operation Overlord, the assault on the German occupying forces in the north of France.” Helpfully, the end titles explain who won World War II.