Every actor is bound to disappoint when playing one of the most theatrical leaders in modern history. Franklin D. Roosevelt’s entire career was a great performance. 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, and in some ways he is very good casting. He is the right age — Cox is 70 playing Churchill at 70 — and he’s the right size.
Cox does a better than average job — almost everybody bombs when playing Churchill — 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 prime minister’s life.
Indeed, the title of this film — “Churchill” — feels a bit misplaced. Not only isn’t it about the totality of Churchill’s life, but 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.
Basically, this is the story of a man who is worried and wrong. Churchill is worried that the D-Day invasion is going to be a failure, and he is wrong in wanting to postpone it altogether. 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 the deck of a ship, even though this will put him in harm’s way. This is a man of action who is being forced to wait and not be in charge, and he can’t take it.
For those interested in World War II, “Churchill” is a mildly entertaining footnote to history, though the sameness of the scenes begins to wear down a viewer after the first hour. But as a portrait of the man, it’s not only incomplete, but misleading. Churchill may have been worried and wrong in this instance, but he spent most of the 1930s worried but right about Adolf Hitler, and but for his own wartime leadership, he might have gone down in history as a modern Cassandra, who saw the ruin of his country coming but couldn’t stop it.
John Slattery makes a rather blithe Eisenhower, though perhaps that’s just how Brits see Americans, as breezy and shallow. Miranda Richardson has the thankless role of Churchill’s wife, who has to put up with those cigars and mood swings. And James Purefoy is memorable in his brief appearance as King George VI (of “The King’s Speech” fame). His big scene, in which he ever-so-gently orders Churchill not to join the troops for the invasion, is the best in the movie.
(At the Glenwood Arts, Tivoli, Town Center.)
Rated PG for thematic elements, brief war images, historical smoking throughout, some language.