Every actor is bound to disappoint when playing one of the most theatrical leaders in modern history. Franklin D. Roosevelt’s career was a great performance that took place over the course of a lifetime. The same could be said for John F. Kennedy. These were brilliant actors who played themselves to perfection, and no actor can come close to touching them. High up in that elite category was Winston Churchill, one of the greatest speechwriters and orators of the past century, and the most unabashedly theatrical of them all.
Brian Cox has the title role in “Churchill,’’ depicting 96 hours in the life of Britain’s wartime Prime Minister, and in some ways he is very good casting. He is the right age — Cox is 70 playing Churchill at 70 — and he’s the right size. Movies and television are full of tall F. Scott Fitzgeralds and tall Martin Luther Kings, but Cox is about 5-foot-7, which was Churchill’s height. We think of Churchill as taller because he was often photographed either next to Joseph Stalin (5-foot-5) or with a man who was, of necessity, seated: FDR.
Cox does a better than average job — almost everybody bombs when playing Churchill — capturing the leader’s seriousness of purpose and the weight of his responsibility. He gives us Churchill’s irascibility, but he doesn’t convey Churchill’s twinkle, his charm, or his wit. But then, to be fair, “Churchill’’ takes place at a not-particularly witty juncture in the prime minister’s life.
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Indeed, the title of this film — “Churchill’’ — feels a bit misplaced. Not only isn’t it about the totality of Churchill’s life, but the portion it chooses to dramatize isn’t emblematic of the whole. It’s unclear what might have inspired screenwriter Alex von Tunzelmann to want to depict these four days in 1944, the run-up to the June 6 Allied invasion of France, known to history as D-Day.
Basically, this is the story of a man who is worried and wrong. Churchill is worried that the D-Day invasion is going to be a failure, and he is wrong in wanting to postpone it altogether. And so we get scene after scene of Churchill making himself a big pain in the neck. He devises alternate attack plans. He makes a nuisance of himself with Field Marshal Montgomery, the ranking British officer, and with General Eisenhower, who is leading the invasion.
Then he gets it into his head that he wants to observe the battle from the deck of a ship, even though this will put him in harm’s way. This is a man of action who is being forced to wait and not be in charge, and he can’t take it.
For those interested in World War II, “Churchill’’ is a mildly entertaining footnote to history, though the sameness of the scenes begins to wear down a viewer after the first hour. But as a portrait of the man, it’s not only incomplete, but also misleading. Churchill may have been worried and wrong in this instance, but he spent most of the 1930s worried but right about Adolf Hitler, and but for his own wartime leadership, he might have gone down in history as a modern Cassandra, who saw the ruin of his country coming but couldn’t stop it.
John Slattery makes a rather blithe Eisenhower, though perhaps that’s just how Brits see Americans, as breezy and shallow. Miranda Richardson has the thankless role of Churchill’s wife, who has to put up with those cigars and mood swings. And James Purefoy is memorable in his brief appearance as King George VI (of “The King’s Speech’’ fame). His big scene, in which he ever-so-gently orders Churchill not to join the troops for the invasion, is the best in the movie.
☆☆ out of 4 stars
Drama. Starring Brian Cox and Miranda Richardson. Directed by Jonathan Teplitzky. Runs June 2-8 at The Grand Cinema. (PG. 98 minutes.)