Thursday, 15 June 2017

Movie Review: Churchill (2017)

Outside of a few pop culture appearances, the urban legend of his conversation with Nancy Astor and a Robin Williams skit about who truly wrote his greatest speeches, I honestly don’t know that much about Winston Churchill. So, rather than continue to pretend that I have anything of note to say before digging into the film, let’s just get into this thing already. This is Churchill.

The plot: British Prime Minister Winston Churchill (Brian Cox), in the lead-up to the British-American military effort that would later be known as D-Day, is pleading with the military officials to call off the attack. As he tries to negotiate with American general Dwight D. Eisenhower (John Slattery) and British military official Monty (Julian Wadham), and continues to struggle with the lingering effects of his own time on the battlefront, he must come to grips with his trauma and become the leader that his country needs him to be.

When it comes to depicting a character as larger-than-life as Churchill, you genuinely wouldn’t be able to do much better than Brian Cox manages here. Not only does he nail his character’s legendary speeches with the bravado and almost-superhuman heaviness that they require but he does remarkably well at depicting Churchill at his lowest points, matching his oratory skills with the fractured man behind those words. Miranda Richardson, mainly known for portraying shrill and frequently batty authority figures in works like Blackadder, Sleepy Hollow and the 1999 iteration of Alice In Wonderland, goes against popular type as Churchill’s wife. Playing into the film’s sly nudges to the adage “Behind every great man, there stands a great woman”, her role as counsel and eventual wake-up call for Winston is fulfilled very well along with managing to keep up with the Lion in their mutual scenes. Slattery as Eisenhower, while echoing his role in Spotlight in terms of playing the initially cold but nonetheless emotionally affected higher-up, is abrasive against Churchill while just managing to avoid becoming a caricature of modern military officials, same with Wadham, Danny Webb and Richard Durden in similar militaristic roles. Ella Purnell as Churchill’s secretary, who initially had me thinking that this film was just going to be a reskin of Deadfall in terms of her importance to the story, acts as the linchpin to one of the film’s most powerful moments and her scenes opposite Cox are among the best the film has to offer. Honestly, the only real sticking point in the cast is with James Purefoy as King George, and that’s only because his constantly-wavering accent ended up cutting into some of the emotional impact of his words. I hate to say it but, as muddled as that film ultimately was, I prefer Rupert Everett’s turn as the character from A Royal Night Out, who managed to depict that same uncertainty far better.

Films about World War II have generally reached the point of “ugh” with me, mainly because of how easily these films are used as easy Oscar bait and generally channelling light feelings of hope that make for nice and easy sitting experiences. Well, that’s not quite what we get here. Far more so than a film about war, this story is a character piece centred on Churchill and his own perspective concerning the war; namely, his fears for how it will end. Surprisingly, with talks about his own fears for the soldiers on the front line, it isn’t even directly concerning the enemy lying in wait. Instead, building on Churchill’s own experiences in World War I, we get the very distinct picture of a man who has seen the terrors of war, and the lives that such events take, and will do just about anything to prevent the things he has seen from happening to anyone else. Mixed in with that are some very clear signs of shellshock, along with a depressive episode that is honestly rather chilling in how familiar it feels, and what results from all this is a portrayal of a great man suffering great internal strife. Of course, Cox and writer Alex von Tunzelmann manage to squeeze in some nice oh-so-British jokes to help ease the tension in certain scenes, but for the most part, we are watching a man in the grips of fear that seem to go beyond the standards of fear for a war setting.

However, just because the film focuses on the man at his lowest doesn’t mean that the film stays within that realm for its entirety; the man is best known for his words and ferocity behind said words and the film more than delivers on that front. Throughout, he see him thinking over, going over and generally tweaking his classic speeches and his more oratory moments are where the film is at its absolute best. With someone as lauded for his way with words as Churchill, matching the poignancy of his diction with an actor capable of delivering it with the power and humane authority that they require is no easy feat. Brian Cox, an actor whom has been on the fringe of the popular consciousness through his role in X-Men 2 among others, doesn’t so much deliver on his material as he manages to possibly outshine the genuine article. The scene where he is praying to God to stop Operation Overlord and, in his mind, save the troops is almost Shakespearean in how it is realized, from the divine and earth-shattering imagery of the words to the rather theatrical framing right down to the inevitable hubris in the author’s intent. From there, we have his ultimate speech to the troops, a moment so moving and galvanizing, even to a person just sitting in the audience, that it makes the arc required to reach that point feel even more worthy in the process.

Churchill, for the majority of the film, is a broken man. With the images of his own war history fresh in his mind, he is shown mainly butting heads with the Allied Forces and doing all he can to stop them sending young soldiers to their deaths. Given how D-Day historically became its own symbol of hope and resilience in terms of major wartime events, this stance could have very easily made him come across as a bit of a crackpot and a general irritant that stood in the way of victory. However, for two main reasons, it manages to avoid this. For one, by detailing his own fears and the reasons behind those fears, the film at the very least makes his actions understandable. For another, the film acknowledges that Churchill being in the grip of his own fears isn’t where he should be as a person. While staying on this side of judgemental, it shows Churchill’s trauma as something that affects him greatly, but also something that he had to overcome to be what the nation needed him to be at that moment in time: A voice of hope and courage for the others affected by the war effort.

Even the most innately historical films are written with modern hindsight well in effect, something shown in how it depicts Churchill as this almost-Spartan war general who only knows how to exist in the midst of fighting (possibly the reason why he wasn’t re-elected as Prime Minister once the war was over?). However, within that war-torn poet lies something that I think the world might need right now as I write this: Hope. Without completely derailing this review (I tend to do that enough with these as is), I’ll just say that the way the world is looking right now, we could very well be stepping into another World War. The problem there is that, between the U.S., the U.K. and even here in Australia, we don’t have anyone who can fill that role of hope and fiery union that we desperately need at this venture. Hell, Trump is about as far from Churchill as you can get purely in terms of being able to put words together properly. What this film basically represents as its core, beyond being a character study of a great man in the middle of a great dilemma, is a force that galvanized everyone together to fight against those who would threaten their existence. We could really use someone like that right now.

All in all, if you want inspirational cinema, there is where you’ll find it. With Brian Cox leading the dramatic charge, aided by a strong supporting cast and the kind of writing that shows why great speeches are as vital as they are, this serves at once as a character study of what makes someone as vehement as they are in their causes as well as a depiction of how one man’s potent words can bring a world together and create inspiration and fire when it is needed most. Even if others don’t see this film as being all-together great, there is no denying that Brian Cox gives a performance that should go down in legend alongside Churchill himself in terms of impact and weight. Knowing the general aims of most war films, in particular the Oscar hopefuls, this is probably one of the most hard-hitting and genuinely inspiring efforts we’re likely to get for the entire season. I welcome the chance to be wrong here more so than ever, because I hardly think that more productions like this would be unappreciated. As I write this very review, I keep feeling more and more driven by what I saw on screen and the more I think about the state that the world is in right now, the more I end up confirming in my own head that the words of Churchill have a need to be reiterated right now. It ranks higher than Lion, as my adoration for this film goes beyond just national pride and into areas of sharp writing and phenomenal acting that are almost untouchable here when it comes to emotional impact. However, for as much as I love Brian Cox’s performance and the words behind him, this film doesn’t tap into that instinctual “that was fucking amazing” feeling as much as Kaabil did for me.

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