When it comes to the name of Sir Winston Churchill in movie circles, all eyes are on Atonement director Joe Wright’s Darkest Hour, starring an unrecognizable Gary Oldman as the former Prime Minister.  Wright’s film carries Academy Award pedigree arriving during the peak of awards season in late November and made this writer’s list of 18 Films to Watch for the 2018 Oscars.  Oldman will be the 40th actor to play Churchill on film.  He’s going to have a tough act to follow from Actor #39.

Not to be outdone, here comes the multi-talented Scotsman Brian Cox, granted a choice starring role in Churchill, the fifth feature film from confident Australian director Jonathan Teplitzky (The Railway Man, Burning Man).  Oldman has always afforded a cult pedestal, but Cox is no slouch of an actor himself.  Exuding nobility while choking every ounce of potency and clout through the ever-present smoke of the British Bulldog’s cigars, Cox winningly puts his own stamp on playing the greatest Briton of all-time. 

Teplizky’s film skips the biopic route to narrow its silver screen diary entry to the 96 hours preceding Operation Overlord, better known as the amphibious invasion of D-Day in June 1944 during the Second World War.  The Winston Churchill we meet is exhausted from years of conflict, though he is lionized as a national symbol of strength for holding the empire together.  His leadership burden consumes him, creating a tenuous relationship with his wife Clementine (Miranda Richardson) behind closed doors.

During these four days before the mission commences, Churchill remains the largest voice of dissent to the invasion, citing the resource risks and fearing heavy casualties that could destroy public confidence.  The Operation Overlord orchestrators, led by General Dwight D. Eisenhower (John Slattery) and Field Marshal Bernard Montgomery (Julian Wadham), have planned this operation for a year and are not backing down.  Even King George VI (an underused James Purefoy) is on-board, leaving Churchill as the haunted one watching the wires praying for the rain that could scrap the mission.

First-time screenwriter Alex von Tunzelmann keenly composed a melodramatic war film that does not feature a single image of warfare.  Instead, Churchill moves astutely like a countdown clock, giving the film a historical and palpable sense of urgency.  Soft lighting captured by television cinematography specialist David Higgs and sobering ethereal voices from a restrained Lorne Balfe (The LEGO Batman Movie) score support fights that aren’t on the battlefield.  Lovers of true history might cite and define these behind-the-scenes tensions differently, but, as a film, the clashes between spouses, citizen participants, military figureheads, and political ideologies play adequately as opportunities for an actors showcase.

John Slattery and his over-polished coolness seem mismatched as Ike, negating his half of any accord or contention.  Miranda Richardson impresses to elevate above the “long-suffering wife” cliche to exhibit true resolve capable of matching or surpassing her on-screen legendary spouse.  The overwhelming highlight remains Brian Cox, mildly disguised behind Cate Hall’s seamless special makeup and prosthetics.  

This writer considers Brian Cox one of the most underappreciated character actors in the business today.  Read his filmography.  He has been an accomplished and terrifically versatile mainstay through all levels and genres of film for over thirty years since turning our heads as cinema’s first Hannibal Lecktor in Michael Mann’s Manhunter.  Cox is a consummate performer, brimming with fervid screen presence.  From Braveheart to Super Troopers, he is never the weak link to any picture.  Churchill offers a rare lead performance from Cox and, like the chameleon he’s always been, he reminds us of his indomitable intensity.

LESSON #1: OPERATION OVERLORD WAS A HUGE UNDERTAKING AND EVEN LARGER GAMBLE-- Despite meticulous planning and superior resources at the Allied disposal, D-Day was never a sure thing.  Plenty would convey confidence in the plan, but none of it was a given until the boots that hit those beaches won their positions.  Hopefully, like any good war film dramatization, Churchill can be a springboard for viewers to dig into the actual history of the events and the influential people who made them. 

LESSON #2: LEADERS BRING THEIR BURDENS HOME AND TO THE WORKPLACE-- The exasperated Prime Minister is shown often venting his frustrations outwardly.  He wrongly lashes out at the minor mistakes of others beneath him when it’s really his insecurities coming out.  The hard part is who has the mettle to push back against a man of that stature?

LESSON #3: DON’T ARGUE WITH YOUR WIFE-- Clementine Churchill was one woman who can answer the exit question of Lesson #2.  No husband, not even the Prime Minister of England, can ever “pull rank” at home.  Don’t even try it.  At home, you are equals.  She can and will put you in your place.  That’s her job.  That’s why you married her.