Every actor is bound to disappoint when playing one of the most theatrical leaders in modern history. Franklin D. Roosevelt’s career was a great performance that took place over the course of a lifetime. The same could be said for John F. Kennedy. These were brilliant actors who played themselves to perfection, and no actor can come close to touching them. High up in that elite category was Winston Churchill, one of the greatest speechwriters and orators of the past century, and the most unabashedly theatrical of them all.
Brian Cox has the title role in “Churchill,” depicting 96 hours in the life of Britain’s wartime prime minister. He is the right age — Cox is 70 playing Churchill at 70 — and he’s the right size at about 5-foot-7. We think of Churchill as taller because he was often photographed either next to Joseph Stalin (5-foot-5) or with Roosevelt, who was by necessity seated.
Cox does a better than average job capturing the leader’s seriousness of purpose and the weight of his responsibility. He gives us Churchill’s irascibility, but he doesn’t convey Churchill’s twinkle, his charm or his wit. But then, to be fair, “Churchill” takes place at a not particularly witty juncture in the his life.
Indeed, the title of this film — “Churchill” — feels a bit misplaced. It isn’t about the totality of Churchill’s life, and the portion it chooses to dramatize isn’t emblematic of the whole. It’s unclear what might have inspired screenwriter Alex von Tunzelmann to want to depict these four days in 1944, the run-up to the June 6 Allied invasion of France, known as D-Day.
Basically, this is the story of a man who is worried and wrong. Churchill is worried that the D-Day invasion is going to fail, and he is wrong in wanting to postpone it. And so we get scene after scene of Churchill making himself a big pain in the neck. He devises alternate attack plans. He makes a nuisance of himself with Field Marshal Montgomery, the ranking British officer, and with Gen. Eisenhower, who is leading the invasion.
Then he gets it into his head that he wants to observe the battle from a ship, even though this will put him in harm’s way. This is a man of action who is forced to let others be in charge, and he can’t take it.
“Churchill” is a mildly entertaining footnote to history. But as a portrait of the man, it’s not only incomplete, but misleading. Churchill may have been wrong in this instance, but he spent most of the 1930s worried but right about Adolf Hitler.
John Slattery makes a rather blithe Eisenhower, though perhaps that’s just how Brits see Americans, while Miranda Richardson has the thankless role of Churchill’s wife. James Purefoy is memorable in his brief appearance as King George VI (of “The King’s Speech” fame). His big scene, in which he orders Churchill not to join the troops for the invasion, is the best in the movie.