June 6th, 1944 is one of the most infamous days in British history and the man leading the country at the time, Winston Churchill, undoubtedly one of our most influential Britons. In 2017, over 70 years after the events of Churchill’s reign come two films about the man, The Darkest Hour starring an unrecognisable Gary Oldman is set for an awards-season release later in the year but now, at the beginning of summer, comes Churchill, with Brian Cox as the titular leader, a film which, despite its title, isn’t your average sprawling biopic – this is a far more intimate, closed-in film set in the few days leading up to D-Day.
Winston Churchill is a figure whom it certainly wouldn’t be difficult to make a film bigger in scope about – perhaps the Oldman-starrer will be that – however Churchill opts for a more unconventional approach to the biopic which works very well. The film follows him over a few days leading up to D-Day as he clashes with the American General Eisenhower (John Slattery) over what to do come June 6th, with both men wanting to do the right thing but in different ways. Churchill discovers his actions will have a personal impact on the life of his new secretary Helen (Ella Purnell), and with the help of Helen and his wife Clementine (Miranda Richardson) he becomes determined to make the right decision as the day draws ever closer.
Taking this approach, and making the film more of a tense drama than a leisurely-paced biopic, might seem like a risk especially with such a big a subject as Winston Churchill but you feel from the get-go this is going to work and it ultimately feels quite refreshing to see a film based on a real-life figure that tries something different. We do get a glimpse into Churchill’s personal life, with Clementine and with Helen, who initially seems a fairly insignificant character but ends up having a much bigger part to play in the run of things than you expect.
In the title role, Cox totally embodies Churchill in every way possible – the voice, the mannerisms, even the cigars. I’m sure Oldman will give a great performance but it’ll have to be pretty amazing to get one over on Cox. Slattery, best known for his work on the long-running US drama series Mad Men, gives a solid performance as Eisenhower who goes head-to-head with Churchill on more than a few occasions, and Richardson and Purnell as the women in Churchill’s life are also both wonderful, giving him the support he needs in a very difficult and dangerous time.
The script, by journalist and author Alex von Tunzelmann, is genuinely tense and engaging – for a film with a lot of talking and negotiating you’re constantly engrossed and the film’s lean 98 minutes pass by very fast. Director Jonathan Teplitzky – who helmed Burma Railway drama The Railway Man – makes sure the action moves quickly and you’re always aware that Churchill’s next problem is just around the corner. The opening scene, set on a beach, is easily one of the most memorable openings to a biopic in some time.
Whatever your political stance, it’s undeniable that Winston Churchill is a massively influential and recognisable figure in British history, and well-loved by many. Churchill not only does him justice, but makes for an entertaining and hugely watchable film with fantastic performances from the whole cast.