When you're making a movie about a well-known historical figure, how do you let audiences know you're not just traipsing through familiar territory? In Churchill, it's as easy as letting the breeze knock a hat from an old man's head. With the film's central figure famous for his headwear, Australian director Jonathan Teplitzky (The Railway Man) wastes no time sweeping away Winston's favoured homburg with a stiff gust of wind. It's an obvious move designed to dispense with the war-time British Prime Minister's usual image. Still, it's an effective one.
The hat, the silhouette, the cigar — yes, they're all here in this World War II-era examination of Winston Churchill. And yet this isn't a cradle-to-grave biopic or an applauding portrait of a political icon. You could say that Churchill asks audiences to trust in its approach in much the same way that Winston himself asked the public to believe in him, and you'd be right. Neither always take the standard path; however, when they hit the mark, they well and truly command attention.
Set in lead up to the D-Day landings in June 1944, and featuring Brian Cox as the leader in question, Churchill is a film of discussion rather than action. In conversations with King George VI (James Purefoy), US army general Dwight D. Eisenhower (John Slattery), his Boer war pal Jan Smuts (Richard Durden), his dutiful wife Clementine (Miranda Richardson) and his new assistant Helen (Ella Purnell), Churchill talks and tussles with the impending mission in Normandy. His colleagues deem it necessary to stop the advancing Germans. But haunted by the First World War, all Churchill can foresee is the possibility of needlessly sending men to die.
What follows is an anxious, depressed and struggling vision of the man once named the greatest-ever Briton. Teplitzky and screenwriter Alex von Tunzelmann are unconcerned with depicting the broad scope of the man's life and legacy. It's mentioned, of course, but on the whole the film prefers to focus on this particular moment in time – and all the contemplation and turmoil that came with it. While plenty of other biopics have done the same thing, revealing the complicated thoughts, choices and emotions plaguing historical icons, Cox's towering performance makes Churchill feel as though it's stepping into fresh territory. Everything around him is competently shot and handsomely staged in the typical historical drama manner. But the veteran actor is the bolt of electricity the film really needs.
Inhabiting rather than simply impersonating, Cox falls on the Daniel Day Lewis as Lincoln side of the spectrum, rather than Meryl Streep as Margaret Thatcher in The Iron Lady. Audiences can expect to be captivated by his bluster-filled speeches, even though much of his screen-time involves chatting and looking grim. At least, that's how it appears at first, but then that's the other thing about Cox's turn in Churchill: look closer, and a world of complexity lurks within.