Review: CHURCHILL, Roaring Like a Lion

Brian Cox is electrifying as Winston Churchill in director Jonathan Teplitzky's absorbing wartime drama.

Managing Editor; Dallas, Texas, USA (@peteramartin)
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Review: CHURCHILL, Roaring Like a Lion

Years of warfare have taken their toll on the old lion.

Beginning one week before D-Day is set to launch in June 1944, Churchill finds the British Prime Minister (and Minister of Defence) haunted by an epic military failure during the Great War three decades before that cost many lives and scarred his psyche permanently. An early tirade in front of King George VI (James Purefoy), Allied Supreme Commander Dwight D. Eisenhower (John Slattery), and British General Bernard Montgomery (Julian Wadham) thus sets the tone for Churchill's reasoning.

In his mind, history will inevitably repeat itself. Who else will protect the thousands of young British soldiers who will inevitably die in the planned invasion? He must act to prevent this atrocity! He is adamantly opposed to the battle plans that have been drawn up and proclaims his opposition in full voice.

And what a voice! As embodied by the great Brian Cox, Winston Churchill is a fearsome force of power. At 69 years of age, it is not Churchill's stout, bowed physical appearance that is imposing, it is his sheer thunderous presence, which he summons up to become a giant among men, whether he is barking out orders to his latest secretary, a meek young woman named Miss Garrett (Ella Purnell), or arguing with mighty military leaders.

Those leaders are arrayed in opposition to him; Eisenhower and Montgomery are at the end of their patience and can barely tolerate his presence. Churchill's military advisor Alan Brooke (Danny Webb) and longtime friend Jan Smuts (Richard Durden), who are quieter and more respectful, yet no less firmly convinced that Churchill must listen to reason.

sa-churchill-300.jpgAs depicted in the screenplay by Alex von Tunzelmann, Churchill feels left out. He became prime minister in 1940, some months after Britain declared war on Germany and took an active leadership role as Minister of Defence, but after the U.S. entered the war, his military role was reduced. Motivated by genuine, humane concern and a core belief that fires his soul, he refuses to back down, even though his authority is limited.

Brian Cox turns the volume up to 11 almost immediately. His sonorous voice charges the movie with electricity; it sounds like God is speaking, and you're in trouble.

Somehow, Cox still sounds entirely natural; it never feels like a performance, per se, more like an enlarged style of speaking that fits the man and the moment. He's enraged, or excited, or enthused, and he pulls all the air from whatever room he's inhabiting and forces it out through his throat and his mouth.

His dear, beloved, loyal wife Clemente is portrayed by Miranda Richardson with her own distinctive force. She slices through his bluster with well-chosen words that pierce his defenses and cut him to the quick, occasionally leaving him speechless that she would dare to speak to him in such a manner.

The supporting cast is strong; John Slattery stands out as the American among the group, but, like Cox, he doesn't overdo his embodiment of Eisenhower. Ella Purnell is mostly left to react with astonishment at Churchill's frequent outbursts, though she nails her sole opportunity to express her opinion.

Jonathan Teplitzky directed the stately and respectful The Railway Man a few years ago and has been busy helming episodic television since then. Whether it's largely due to Brian Cox's magnetic, compelling performance or not, Churchill feels like a definite step up from his previous feature. Veteran film editor Chris Gill (War on Everyone) gooses the pace and there's barely any down time, so that's a factor as well.

Even for those well-versed in the historical and military accounts, Churchill is a must-see movie in order to bask in Brian Cox's magnificent, empathetic performance. The fact that (eventually) he delivers a stirring speech almost feels a cherry on top.

Churchill opens in select U.S. theaters on Friday, June 2, via Cohen Media Group.

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Brian CoxJohn SlatteryJonathan TeplitzkyMiranda RichardsonWinston Churchill

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ManateeAdvocateJune 1, 2017 12:10 PM

Brian Cox is an absolute beast of an actor. What a screen presence. Great review. Obviously I'm really looking forward to this one.

KurtJune 1, 2017 12:25 PM

I have no doubt that COX is magnificent here, but juding from the trailer (albeit not a completely fair measuring stick), the screenplay feels very weak-sauce.

Peter MartinJune 1, 2017 2:53 PM

Curious, Kurt: which aspect of the writing felt weak-sauce to you?

KurtJune 2, 2017 8:56 AM

The obviously barking out it's SENTIMENTALITY. I'm sure war and politics, particularly at that time, we a bit more cutthroat and clinical than this film makes it out to be. If there is hagiography for Winston Churchill, it's in his quick and savage wit, not his ability to summon sparkle-eyed tears and hugs.

Peter MartinJune 2, 2017 3:23 PM

Ah, alright, after watching the trailer again, I see your point, Kurt. Thinking back, I believe the trailer grabbed the entirety of "sparkle-eyed tears and hugs" that are in the film, which, as a whole, is not sentimental, but instead brutal in considering the impact of the war at a desperate time. That also comes across in the characterizations of Eisenhower and Montgomery, and even Mrs. Churchill, who is doing all she can to be supportive of a man whose behavior could be quite vexing.

Peter MartinJune 2, 2017 3:25 PM

Thank you. I must say, watching the trailer again, it brought chills because of Cox at the center of it.

Bryant LowJune 5, 2017 12:47 AM

He's an outstanding actor in virtually any genre (even in a loveably sleazy comedic rolw in THE RINGER). I really hope this nabs his much-deserved Oscar recognition.