Movies that focus on the achievements of a ‘great man’ in public life or the arts are generally content to follow the least provocative path of hagiography. Wishing to be reminded of their hero’s finer qualities, it is what most punters queue up to see. Contrarily, Australian director Jonathan Teplitzky’s film examines the serious conflict that arose between Winston Churchill (Brian Cox) as British prime minister and those responsible for the planning of the D-Day landings on the beaches of Normandy in 1944. Churchill is shown to be an egocentric, recalcitrant man who is past his use-by date in military matters. Unable and unwilling to defer to the American commander-in-chief General Dwight Eisenhower (John Slattery), and Field Marshall Bernard Montgomery, (Julian Wadham), he behaves as though it is ‘his war’ to be won, and it can only be won by employing his outdated strategies.
Whether Churchill really was haunted by the tragedy of Gallipoli, for which he is held to be responsible, is a moot point – he opposed the Normandy option because he thought it would fail and he had one long tanty when he could not get his way. Cox does a fine job in a role burdened by popular culture’s preconceptions, and his performance is enhanced by a disinclination to over-emphasise his character’s famous speech pattern – to do so would have resulted in caricature. His Churchill is a brooding, blinkered super-patriot, while Miranda Richardson shines as his put-upon wife Clementine, who comes to the fore as her husband’s mood descends into darkness. There is a beautiful scene of self-realisation when a dutiful George VI (James Purefoy) speaks to Churchill about the parts they must play in the fight against Nazism and a reminder through constant references to oratory that, in war, the word contributes as much as the sword. Unfortunately, the coda does collapse into unbecoming idolatry (‘the greatest Briton of all time’ is way over the top), but as a dissection of a pivotal moment in modern history, the movie is clear-sighted, intense and enlightening.