A less than historical biopic

Lost amid the hype of Wonder Woman and the build up to Transformers The Last Knight is the release of Churchill. A rare beast these days in that it is a historical film as well as a biopic. At a time when leadership (or the lack of it) is very much the order of the day this film takes a look at a few days in the life of what is, arguably, the greatest British political leader of modern times. The few days in question are the run up to Operation Overlord; the allied invasion of Western Europe and deals with Churchill’s reservations about the operation.
Brian Cox is undoubtedly superb as Churchill, delivering a performance with power and emotion which also manages to capture the demagogue that Churchill undoubtedly was. Miranda Richardson likewise puts in an excellent supporting role as Clementine Churchill; managing to capture the pride and frustration of a strong woman who is bound by duty and expectation to stand in Churchill’s shadow.
Sadly, the acting of the two leads is not enough to save a film which, whilst broadly accurate in terms of time lines and participations, misses or outright creates rationales which simply did not exist. The premise is simple; that Churchill opposed the Normandy landing as he thought that it would be a military disaster due to the parallels which he saw with the Dardanelles campaign in 1915. Whilst it is undoubtedly true that Gallipoi was a present in Churchill’s mind; there is no evidence that he ever opposed Overlord. The records clearly show his concern about casualties (both military and civilian) and he felt the operation was a gamble but the outright opposition in the film appears to be without historical basis. This would not necessarily be a problem if other omissions did not exist but the lack of comment on the Dieppe raid in 1942 and the fact that there were very real concerns in 1944 about the capability and strength of the British Army make this version of Churchill seem shallow and self centred. Likewise the writers, one of whom apparently has a Guardian column reviewing the historical accuracy of films, makes no mention of the fact that Overlord was in essence the last throw of the dice for a British Empire which was drained dry.
The result is a view of Churchill that rather smacks of a political view and ignores the reality; that the man was having to balance a huge number of competing interests. It also does not cast the Generals in an appealing light either. Whilst there was often tension between Montgomery and Churchill; the evidence suggests the latter respected the former as he was the Empire’s most successful General. Likewise, Eisenhower is shown as an almost dictator who is in cahoots with the British commanders to get the operation launched. This, again is unsupported by the records of the time which show that Eisenhower was often at odds with Montgomery and was quite solicitous of Churchill.
So the accuracy of the film is questionable and the pacing is, as you would expect, slow. The latter is not a criticism as this reflects the importance of the issues. The emotional element is rather haphazardly created by the character of Helen Garrett as Churchill’s secretary. The character is well acted but her role feels contrived and more than a little token. A greater emotional impact could be generated by flashbacks of Gallipoli or war graves but that would undoubtedly have cost more and also perhaps worked against the plot basis that Churchill is determined to atone for his guilt and remain relevant.
As a historical biopic, Churchill disappoints. As a piece of character acting however it delivers in spades; as demonstrated by the recreation of Churchill’s speech after the landings. Sadly however, like the leaders of today, the style of delivery is rather let down by the substance of the content.


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