I’ve been critiqued before for my loose definition of what a “war movie” is. What is a war movie anyway? Does it require a certain volume of blood and guts to qualify? No one has been able to explain it satisfactorily to me so I’m going out on a limb and saying that Churchill is a war movie. The intensity of war is in every minute of it and yet, there is not a single scene of combat. Instead, it covers the perspective of Winston Churchill in the few days leading up to D-Day. No gore, no guns, no dismembered body parts – but the implications of this is still the very essence of this film.
The figure of Churchill is forever emblazoned as one of the greatest Britons to have passed through history. This was the image I had in my head as the film opened. Which was why it took me quite awhile to come to terms with the Churchill (BRIAN COX) that is represented in the early half of the movie. Arrogant, smug and self-absorbed, Churchill meets with the Allied leaders to discuss the plans for D-Day…only to try to derail them. He is a frustrating character to watch, so absorbed with his own ideas for the war that he becomes more of a hindrance than a help to the other leaders.
In the meantime, his marriage to Clementine (MIRANDA RICHARDSON) is in equal disarray. Churchill’s mind, filled with nothing but his work and the war, has little space to pay attention to his long-suffering wife. Despite this, Clem cuts an impressive figure from the start. She’s far from hopeless and does little to fade into the background despite her overbearing husband. Her resilience in the face of her husband’s disintegration and determination to remain faithful to him is something that I daresay is a rare thing nowadays, both on screen and in life.
In fact, Clem isn’t the only one who you want to cheer for. Churchill is filled with characters who on screen live up to the noble figures that most people will have learned about in history. Among these are Eisenhower (JOHN SLATTERY) and King George (JAMES PUREFOY), both of whom are excellently and heroically portrayed. Into this brave company wades Winston Churchill, who spends much of the movie surrounded by cigar smoke and alcohol. He seems to come as the only broken person; one who struggles with depression and is haunted by his perceived failures in the First World War.
And yet, he battles on in feigned bravado, first tackling the Allied leaders head on, and then submitting to more underhanded methods of getting his way. Despite this, Churchill is actually motivated by a noble cause. The plans for D-Day are brash. So brash in fact that they run a high risk of butchering thousands of young countrymen without a victory; and it is this possibility that Churchill makes it clear he cannot bear the responsibility of.
I watched Churchill’s turmoil, so glad that in perspective, my own life’s difficulties seemed so trivial. The film does a great job of accentuating the weight on country leaders – that after all the titles we may bestow on them, they are after all just human . Furthermore, it also highlights the fact that great turnarounds can still come from broken people and that the word “duty” is not a dirty word.
There are moments that smack of real “Hollywood-ism” – times that seem more dramatic than they really should have been. But these moments are small enough that by the end of the film, you can forgive them in the face of what eventuates. I came in wanting to love Churchill, but started off hating him, and by the end, loved him all over again.