2017-06-15 / On the Town

Towering acting drives alternative history

The Movie Nut
Robert Gibbons

In June 1944, France was under Nazi control. To liberate the country, Allied troops planned a massive assault on that country’s northern shore. What history would call the Normandy invasion turned the tide of the war.

The operation was under the joint control of Generals Eisenhower, Montgomery and Brooke, but Winston Churchill, as British prime minister and minister of defense, had the final decision-making power.

In reality, he was fully supportive of the plan. But what if he weren’t? What if he still clung to the opinion he held earlier in the war—that an effort of that size would cost too many lives and involve too much risk?

What if, until the very end, he tried to use his access, his influence and his eloquence to stop what became a great Allied victory of World War II?

That’s the premise behind “Churchill,” but it’s never clear this story is being told as a “what if” scenario. Instead, it’s presented as a historical documentary, and while that’s unfair, it doesn’t negate the power of the performances or the riveting telling of the story.

We begin four days before D-Day, and as Churchill (Cox) walks the shores of an unnamed beach, the water runs red with blood. It takes him back to the disastrous assault at Gallipoli in 1915, for which he blames himself.

He sees the upcoming invasion as equally costly and will spend most of the movie arguing, with his generals, his staff and himself, for a series of smaller plans.

This film is nothing more, or less, than a number of intelligently written and superbly delivered arguments that say a lot about the struggles of leadership and the decisions of war.

And while the movie is weakened by the fact that we know what ultimately took place, director Teplitzky keeps us engrossed in the story with a small, first-rate cast who disappear into their characters to maintain an aura of suspense.

With his massive bulk, shuffling gait and ever-present cigar, Cox is Churchill in all his desperation, despair and determination to “speak on behalf of the ordinary fighting man.”

He makes the great leader a person of fervent emotions—angry and abusive, obstinate and obsessive, a pensive perfectionist who tries to find satisfaction in what his trusted colleague, Field Marshall Smuts (Richard Durden), tells him, “Sometimes you have to accept that you can’t lead everything from the front.”

It’s a fully convincing performance that elevates and challenges those with whom he engages. As Churchill’s wife, Clementine, Richardson is a stabilizing presence; she’s her husband’s advisor and confidante, well-matched in intelligence but his polar opposite in her ability to find calm in the chaos. She makes us believe she really has “learned to live around the edges.”

As Eisenhower, Slattery is a curious but excellent choice. He’s thoughtful but impatient, decisive and intense. He shows us why Ike was chosen Supreme Allied Commander: There’s leadership in his eyes.

If Churchill bows to anyone, he bows before his king, and as King George VI, James Purefoy shows us why. With his strange speech patterns and quiet voice, he’s able to explain his role, and Churchill’s, in a way that no one else can.

It’s strong writing in a powerful scene that will earn your respect.

And finally, there’s Churchill’s secretary, Helen (Ellen Purnell), who simply types for most of the movie until she’s given a chance to melt your heart in a very special way. She’ll have you reaching for your Kleenex.

This film has its flaws: It lacks humor, takes time to find its rhythm and pace, and its ending is excessively drawn out.

But the writing, the direction, and especially the performances convince us we’ve been given a seat at the table of leadership— even as we witness the human struggles with the cost of war.

This is alternative history as very satisfying entertainment.

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