What breed of political animal was Winston Churchill? If this new biopic of the wartime Prime Minister is anything to go by, "a big one" is a reasonable start. As played by Brian Cox, he’s like a distant cousin of a brown bear or a Hereford bull, snuffling and stalking through his subterranean Whitehall war rooms, champing at underlings and barking at his reflection, while cigar smoke uncurls from his nostrils in great, steaming snorts.
In a low moment, he even describes himself as “a clapped-out, moth-eaten old lion whose teeth have been pulled so as not to frighten the ladies” – and Churchill’s commitment to making sense of its title character, and the historical figure into which he evolved, makes it less a period drama than a work of scalpel-sharp political taxonomy.
Rather than trying to encompass an entire lifetime, or even zeroing in on a defining test of character in the style of Joe Wright’s forthcoming Churchill biopic Darkest Hour, which takes place over the turbulent first few weeks of his premiership, Jonathan Teplitzky’sfilm plays out over the 96 hours before theD-Day landings – beginning on the “1,736th day of World War 2”, as an opening caption soberly frames it.
By this time, the Blitz was three long years ago, and the Churchill who galvanised a nation in those terrorised times has become a marginalised figure in the war operation, while Field Marshal Montgomery (Julian Wadham) and General Eisenhower (John Slattery) plot Operation Overlord, the coming Allied invasion of Nazi-occupied France.
For Churchill, the plan smacks of costly old mistakes: specifically, the ruinous Gallipoli Campaign he personally championed almost three decades before. The result then was eight months of fighting that ended in Allied retreat and with more than 100,000 men dead, and the culpability still weighs as heavily on him as if he were carrying one of their bodies on his back.
The one terrain he still can’t be outmanoeuvred on, however, is rhetoric – and we see his talents deployed to subtle but dazzling effect early on, in a "speech" he rehearses like a stadium-rousing set-piece but eventually delivers to a small but vitally important audience of one. This is George VI (James Purefoy), at a meeting of the Allied high command at Southwick House, during which Churchill hopes to persuade the King to back his alternative strategy: less a multi-pronged attack than an entire cutlery drawer of manoeuvres, so as to outflank and outfox the Axis powers, and thereby minimise the risk.
The meat of Teplitzky’s film comes in these verbal confrontations, and its best scenes are all head-to-heads, whether Churchill is butting heads with Monty over a map of the Normandy coast, or grumbling at his wife Clementine (Miranda Richardson) – whose own role in the creation and maintenance of her husband’s political persona is given unexpected, welcome room to breathe.
And while you don’t envy Purefoy for a moment in having to follow Colin Firth’s George VI in The King’s Speech, even at a seven-year distance, he’s quietly tremendous in a scene in which he dissects the strange inconsistencies of a leader’s wartime obligations: “My job is not to fight, not to die…I must exist. That is my duty.”
Without wanting to overplay Churchill’s timeliness, let’s just say the film’s notion that true authority stems from complexity and compromise is a lesson Westminster’s Class of ’17 would do well to heed. Still, if any of them have unexpected spare time on their hands in the immediate future, there’s always a cinema trip.
They might also learn something from Cox, whose brilliant performance here isn’t a superficial Churchill impersonation – though the famous brandy-thickened baritone and lugubrious bearing are both impeccably reproduced – but a restlessly smart interrogation of the statesman’s image, and how the man behind it may or may not have measured up.
The screenplay, by historian Alex von Tunzelmann, is laced with trainspottery detail – minor items of Churchilliana, such as his preference for a hole punch, nicknamed Klop, over clips and staples are dropped in as character-revealing asides – but it’s also refreshingly unafraid to pick over its subject’s carcass.
Churchill isn’t a stop-you-in-your-tracks reinvention of the biopic like Pablo Larraín’s Jackie: it’s still ultimately beholden to the genre’s good manners, with the obligatory pretty cinematography and music. But when Cox finally announces “This is the Prime Minister speaking” as he delivers his D-Day address to a waiting nation, you understand the significance of those six words exactly – both what they mean, and what they need to mean in order to mean anything at all. Now that’s escapism.