Having lived through and fought in one World War, British Prime Minister Winston Churchill (Brian Cox) grew weary of fighting as World War II escalated. Prior to the infamous Allied D-Day landings in Normandy, France, in June of 1944, he became increasingly afraid that he would repeat his previous mistakes, and the Normandy invasion would turn into another Battle of Gallipoli and result in the loss of many lives.
With his new film, Churchill, director Jonathan Teplitzky (The Railway Man) focuses on this pivotal time period. The movie opens on Friday at the Cedar Lee Theatre.
"I liked the personal portrait that [screenwriter Alex von Tunzelmann] painted," he says in a recent conference call with Tunzelmann. "The work we did was focusing the film on that element and I thought it was a unique way of capturing and engaging an audience with his deeper and more layered personality. Coming at such an iconic character at one of the most vulnerable moments is interesting."
Tunzelmann says she sought to "go behind the legend" with her script.
"Churchill has been covered a lot with things like [the TV series] The Crown, which is great by the way," she says. "But there's a lot of room for Churchill because he had such a long and eventful life. I wanted to get to a side of him that fascinated me, which is his depression and his struggles with it. In 1940, he's the great hero; but by 1944, his contemporaries were writing in their journals that he was beginning to fail. As the Allies were beginning to win the war, it had taken a toll on him personally."
Veteran British actor Brian Cox delivers a magnificent performance as the cigar-chomping Churchill. He shows how the man could alternately fly into a rage if his speech wasn't typed correctly and then exhibit real empathy when a woman tells him her husband-to-be was fighting on the front lines.
"From the beginning, I thought he was perfect," says Tunzelmann. "He's exactly the right age for the role. He conveys strength and vulnerability, which is what was needed."
"He can access those layers of emotion," he says. "Churchill was an emotional character, and he's not like the classic British character, who is very reserved. He can bring layers to the character. Regardless of how cantankerous he can be, he manages to bring an emotional connection to the audience in a profound way. That's one of Churchill's great attributes. He had an ability to engage with the everyday person. It's what set him apart from other leaders. He has an ability to engage on the most basic level regardless of the fact that he was such a huge figure."
Miranda Richardson portrays Churchill's wife, Clementine, one of the few people with the ability to reel the man in when he went on one of his tirades.
"We needed a Clemmie that would reflect the true Clemmie," says Teplitzky. "She was very strong-minded and opinionated. Because we're making a personal portrait of the man, it needed to be more layered. Their relationship was quite volatile and full of all the things that relationships are full of. Their chemistry on screen makes you feel that their relationship has been going on for a long time. For Miranda to come in and be as powerful and memorable as she is against a fantastic performance from Brian tells you everything about how wonderful she is as an actress."
Not just another war movie, Churchill doesn't feature the stereotypical battle scenes that show war's brutality. Rather, the film expertly conveys its psychological toll and shows how heavily it can wear on a leader. Because Churchill actually fought on the frontlines, he was unlike many other politicians, both then and certainly now.
"This is about the toll war takes and the responsibility," says Teplitzky. "It's about the political process. One thing you could say about Churchill is that his experience allowed him to engage with what it really meant to send young people to war and what war was like. There is a huge issue now about leadership and his name always comes up. He gets thrown into that mix. His ability to understand what is and what is meant is reflected in the deep emotion that he held with real people and with the guilt and shame he carried. Politicians now sit back while young people go off to fight wars."
Tunzelmann says it was "amazing" that Churchill put himself on the front lines.
"You can't imagine a politician doing that now," she says. "He didn't want to be the guy who stays at home."