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Cox roars and blusters with perfection in Churchill

Churchill. Directed by Jonathan Teplitsky. Starring Brian Cox and Miranda Richardson.
Brian Cox leans full bore into his portrayal of Winston Churchill in Jonathan Teplitsky’s thriller, Churchill, about the hours leading up to the D-Day Invasion.

Churchill. Directed by Jonathan Teplitsky. Starring Brian Cox and Miranda Richardson. Rating: 7 (out of 10)

With the current low bar set for leadership in many nations around the globe, it’s no wonder we are more fascinated than ever by the fallibility and successes of great rulers.

Set for release the week of D-Day’s anniversary, a new film by Jonathan Teplitsky chronicles the last few days before the Normandy landings in 1944 – largely credited with ending the Second World War – and the misgivings of an icon who almost prevented it from happening.

Winston Churchill (Brian Cox), was the formidable British prime minister who rallied his country during the “keep calm and carry on” early days of the war, when cities in the United Kingdom were reduced to crumbling ruins during the Blitz. Four years later, on the 1,736th day of the Second World War (a novel way to show how long the war has dragged on) the same man is plagued by doubt and depression, cantankerous and prone to fighting with whomever is in his path.

“I’ll try to rein him in,” promises Jan Smuts (Richard Durden), his aide.

“You can try,” retorts his weary wife Clementine (Miranda Richardson).

Churchill’s greatest fear is that he is being rendered obsolete as younger men strategize without him: Operation Overlord is a plan months in the making by American Gen. Dwight Eisenhower (Mad Men’s John Slattery) and British Field

Marshal Bernard Montgomery (Julian Wadham).  Churchill is not only opposed but terrified at the idea, as it involves beach invasions and closely resembles the failed campaign at Gallipoli in 1915. Then the head of the Royal Navy, Churchill promoted the idea and was the scapegoat when the failed campaign in the Dardanelles ended up in slaughter.

Gallipoli haunts Churchill from the first scene, in a flashback of the sea running red with blood. We get it, the war is not over for him. It’s not the last time the PM will scan the coastline wistfully and hear the cries of the dead. “I mustn’t let it happen again,” he says. Operation Overlord will involve a quarter-million men, roughly the same number that of casualties on each side in Gallipoli.

Churchill remains resolutely opposed despite reasoning from Ike and Monty, Smuts and Clemmie, of course, the one who is left to pick up the pieces – literally – after Winston’s bourbon-fueled frequent rages. Even King George VI (James Purefoy) has to tell him to stop interfering. But it’s a young secretary with a fiancé on the front lines (Ella Purnell) who turns Churchill around, almost.

Directed by Jonathan Teplitsky from a screenplay by Alan von Tunzelmann, Churchill is a film with a narrow time frame and focus, sure to appeal to history buffs but less likely to entertain the masses in the way The King’s Speech did with a similar chunk of history.

The reason to see it is Brian Cox, who gained a substantial amount of weight and leans full bore into the role. Cox roars and blusters, chomps incessantly on those trademark cigars, and delivers his many soliloquies with the clipped precision for which the prime minister was famous. But he’s able to bring out the vulnerability in this hothead with a fearful look in the eyes and meek responses to his king and his wife, the only two people who could govern him with any success. A great performance.