His tow­er­ing pres­ence felt

Brian Cox’s ‘Churchill’ per­for­mance is wor­thy of the great man him­self.

Los Angeles Times - - AT THE MOVIES - By Gary Gold­stein cal­en­dar@la­times.com

Brian Cox, in a tow­er­ing, Os­car-cal­iber per­for­mance, proves the lit­eral beat­ing heart of “Churchill,” a su­perb look at iconic states­man Win­ston Churchill’s tor­tur­ous days lead­ing up to the piv­otal D-Day land­ings of June 6, 1944.

The Scot­tish-born Cox, a fine screen and stage ac­tor whose lengthy ré­sumé in­cludes play­ing such di­verse char­ac­ters as Han­ni­bal Lecter (in “Man­hunter”), a clos­eted gay fa­ther and hus­band (“The Lost Lan­guage of Cranes”), Nazi of­fi­cial Her­mann Göring (“Nurem­berg”) and a charis­matic pe­dophile (“L.I.E.”), uses his im­mer­sive skills to per­haps ca­reer-best ef­fect here por­tray­ing the mer­cu­rial Bri­tish prime min­is­ter — gait, weight, voice and ap­pendage-like cigar in­tact — who led his na­tion to vic­tory over Adolf Hitler’s Ger­many in World War II.

Churchill’s rep­u­ta­tion — he was named in a 2002 poll as “the great­est Bri­ton of all time” — has been coun­tered over the years by those who con­sid­ered the two-time prime min­is­ter (1940 to 1945, 1951 to 1955) to be a racist and an im­pe­ri­al­ist. Al­though that more con­tro­ver­sial side goes largely un­seen here, his­to­rian and writer Alex von Tun­zel­mann’s splen­did screen­play does fo­cus on Churchill as much as a man of fail­ings as he was a sym­bol of strength and in­spi­ra­tion. The re­sult is a riv­et­ing de­pic­tion of a leader at a cross­roads emo­tion­ally, po­lit­i­cally and mar­i­tally; equal parts bully and cham­pion.

Cox master­fully cap­tures Churchill’s con­tra­dic­tory na­ture, ob­ses­sive du­ti­ful­ness to queen and coun­try, and a volatil­ity born out of fear, des­per­a­tion and im­pend­ing loss. At the same time, the ac­tor stir­ringly rounds out his com­plex char­ac­ter with many poignant mo­ments of quiet re­flec­tion and near-painful self-aware­ness.

With close to a mil­lion Al­lied sol­diers poised to in­vade Nazi-oc­cu­pied Europe via the beaches of Nor­mandy, France, the film finds a deeply con­flicted Churchill at odds with U.S. Gen. Dwight Eisen­hower (John Slattery of “Mad Men,” ex­cel­lent) and English Field Mar­shal Bernard Law Mont­gomery (Ju­lian Wad­ham) as they pre­pare to move forth with this mission known as Op­er­a­tion Over­lord.

Haunted by his dis­as­trous com­mand of World War I’s Bat­tle of Gal­lipoli, which saw the loss of more than 200,000 Al­lied troops, Churchill has turned in­tensely pro­tec­tive of his sol­diers’ lives as well as of his own his­tor­i­cal legacy.

But the prime min­is­ter be­comes even more acutely plagued by his in­abil­ity to stop this high-risk in­va­sion of north­ern France as he is side­lined in his lead­er­ship role by the ca­pa­bly gung-ho Eisen­hower and Mont­gomery, who ques­tion the ag­ing politi­cian’s mil­i­tary rel­e­vance.

In a mag­nif­i­cent scene, Churchill, who has de­cided to per­son­ally ob­serve the DDay land­ings from the ship Belfast along with King George VI (James Pure­foy, deftly chan­nel­ing the monarch’s no­tably im­peded speech), is gen­tly, thought­fully told by his majesty that their places re­main at home. But Churchill’s re­spect­ful ac­cep­tance of the king’s wishes does lit­tle to ease his mount­ing anx­i­ety and de­pres­sion.

Mean­while, Churchill’s de­voted, strong-willed wife, Clemen­tine (Mi­randa Richard­son), pulls no punches as she helps her hus­band nav­i­gate his roil­ing moods, ex­ces­sive drink­ing and an even­tual men­tal and spir­i­tual col­lapse just prior to DDay. Buoyed by Richard­son’s first-rate turn, “Clem­mie” proves a fully re­al­ized char­ac­ter: in­te­gral to her spouse’s sta­bil­ity and well-be­ing, yet pro­gres­sively aware of her place in the world.

Ul­ti­mately, Churchill must pull him­self to­gether to present the kind of gal­va­niz­ing D-Day ad­dress his coun­try­men — and the Al­lied forces — des­per­ately need to hear, and he does so with con­fi­dence and up­lift. As de­liv­ered by Cox, it’s a pow­er­ful, defin­ing mo­ment, even if it’s not quite the famed “We shall fight them on the beaches” speech Churchill ac­tu­ally gave on June 4, 1944.

Ella Pur­nell, as the prime min­is­ter’s sec­re­tary, and Richard Dur­den, as Field Mar­shal (and Churchill con­fi­dant) Jan Smuts, pro­vide mem­o­rable sup­port.

Di­rec­tor Jonathan Teplitzky has crafted a propul­sive, emo­tion­ally in­volv­ing por­trait that’s aided im­mea­sur­ably by David Higgs’ strik­ing cin­e­matog­ra­phy and Chris Roope’s el­e­gant pro­duc­tion de­sign.

For any­one who thinks “they don’t make ’em like they used to,” “Churchill” is for you.

Co­hen Me­dia

WIN­STON CHURCHILL (Brian Cox) is shown in the lead up to D-Day in 1944.

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