One very good reason for going to this film is to see how the magnificent Brian Cox tackles playing Churchill. To be honest, there aren’t many other reasons for going. He’s certainly got the chops for the part, in every way, and does a powerful job against the odds with rather dull and ponderous material that never really progresses or elaborates on its basic situation.
Covering a brief period just before and after D-Day, it concerns itself with the great man’s doubts about letting the invasion go ahead, as he agonises about it becoming a repeat of the disaster of Gallipoli 30 years earlier, for which he, as a young minister, was to a great extent responsible. (In fact that engagement was studied as a model of what not to do in a seaborn land assault, so it did play its part.) ‘A bloodbath’ is what he continually calls the Normandy plans, and we see him first on a beach, stomping along in Churchillian profile, jutting jaw and paunch, having a fit of the horrors as the waves seem to bring a tide of blood up over the sands.
After his over-ruling by a determined trio of military experts – General Eisenhower supported by Field Marshalls Montgomery and Brooke – the invasion goes ahead, ignoring his vague mutterings about opening up a second front instead, and all he can do is lie impotently on his bed, or stomp around getting scant sympathy from Clementine. Blame it on the script, but has Miranda Richardson ever been so dull onscreen? Apart from one Blackadder moment of an ironic twist to her lips, she’s the glum dutiful wartime wife, exasperated with but supportive of her big baby of a husband. It’s certainly a great performance by Cox, his craggy face at first as fascinatingly watchable as a dramatic weathered landscape, its clints and grykes frozen with apprehension or looking about to crack along its fissures with agony. But sadly the lines he has to deliver and the repetition of the same round of fears, flash backs and agonising settles into a rut.
By settling in on Churchill as a character, there’s an opportunity lost to muse on how this was a pivot on which the balance of military power between the UK and US tottered and came down on the other side of the Atlantic. We were no longer to be in charge of our own military decisions. Sadly this idea isn’t taken very far at all, it’s all personalised into Churchill’s own agonised sensibilities. There’s a rather tame little side-plot involving a goggle-eyed secretary and her fiancé who’s a midshipman in the invasion force, which attempts to link with the reality of the invasion and cast a good light on the bloodbath aspect, but it’s lukewarm and soapy. Fiancé is OK, the invasion is a done deal, and all the film seems interested in is Churchill’s personal relief. Even though all the time you scarcely forget it’s not him you’re drawn in by but Brian Cox’s epic portrayal.
Seen at Tyneside Cinema Newcastle, June 2017