Actors who play famous people are almost always at a disadvantage with audiences. We can’t help but compare the facsimile with the original. This deficit is especially true of actors who play politicians – unless, of course, we’re talking about satirical take-offs à la Alec Baldwin’s Donald Trump. Too often, even when the renditions are expert, as with, say, James Whitmore’s Harry Truman or Edward Herrmann’s Franklin Delano Roosevelt, we watch the performances with a built-in reserve. In visual terms, at least, they can’t help but pale next to the originals, even though what we may know of the originals is often only gleaned from documentaries.
In the case of Winston Churchill, the problem is compounded by the fact that the great Briton was already so theatrical a presence, with a voice and delivery so familiar and inimitable, that, in a sense, he was already his own best impersonator.
The highly uneven “Churchill,” directed by Jonathan Teplitzky, serves up Brian Cox as the latest in a long line of Churchill impersonators, following such actors as Albert Finney, Brendan Gleeson, Timothy Spall, John Lithgow, Michael Gambon, and Richard Burton. In some ways, Cox is among the better ones, not only because, especially with a weight gain and a shaved head as part of the package, he resembles Churchill more than most of the others. He also brings to the fore the private Churchill that was often hidden behind the public persona.
Teplitzky and his screenwriter, Alex von Tunzelmann, may have overdone Churchill’s private side. For most of the time, we are privy to a man who is sullen, boozed up, and at times near catatonic. The film becomes more about Churchill’s battle to conquer himself than about the Allies’ battle to defeat the Nazis.
Teplitzky sets the depresso tone early on when we see Churchill, in heavy overcoat and homburg, walking alone along the coast of the English Channel in southern England, as he imagines a blood-red sea. He is recalling the Gallipoli Campaign of 1915, which he championed and which became a notorious failure for the Allies. The film is set shortly before the D-Day invasion. Churchill, as prime minister, is afraid of a repeat of the Gallipoli debacle and has yet to fully endorse the operation, much to the consternation of Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower (John Slattery), supreme commander of the Allied Expeditionary Force, and Gen. Bernard Montgomery (Julian Wadham), British commander of the Allied ground troops.
In reality, Churchill had fully committed to the invasion by the time D-Day approached, but the film’s compression of several months of wavering into several days, complete with a last-minute change of heart, is, I suppose, dramatically, if not historically, justifiable. It’s often been debated what exactly compelled Churchill to reverse course. The film’s supposition – that he needed to rouse himself out of his deep depression and overcome his fear of another Gallipoli – is simplistic but believable.
Of course, since we know what the outcome to all this will be, the film tries to make everything as interesting, in personal terms, as possible. Churchill’s wife, Clementine (Miranda Richardson), is given a big boost in this process: It is she who recognizes even more than her husband his historical destiny.
She also puts up with an awful lot from him. With lesser mortals, his surly outbursts and mammoth moodiness would be enough to clear the room and close the marriage. “Churchill” plays into the ho-hum Behind Every Great Man Is a Great Woman scenario, but there were times when I wondered why Clemmie, rather than Winnie, wasn’t running the country, if not the world. If she can manage this husband, surely she should be able to manage Britain.
Cox has always been a hulking, somewhat fearful presence – it’s no accident he was the first screen incarnation of Hannibal Lecter, in “Manhunter,” and he has also played Joseph Stalin and Hermann Göring. In “Churchill,” he employs his bulk more for pathos than for intimidation. Given the potential for scenery-chewing here, Cox is surprisingly restrained even in his moments of highest dudgeon. (Perhaps the film’s skimpy production design helped with this restraint: There’s not a whole lot of scenery to chew.) I’m not sure it’s a vast improvement over the usual iconic approach to memorialize Churchill as a boozy sufferer who somehow, heroically, transcended himself. Too often “Churchill” feels more like an exposé than a deep-dish psychological exploration. Still, there are moments in Cox’s performance when we can locate the living, breathing man inside the commemorative statue, and that’s not nothing. Grade: B- (Rated PG for thematic elements, brief war images, historical smoking throughout, and some language.)