Maybe because he was so caricature-ready in life, Winston Churchill has never fared very well on film. Sometimes it seems that every British actor of a certain age and girth has tackled the role, including Albert Finney, Michael Gambon, Timothy Spall (who turned Churchill into a cigar-puffing garden gnome in “The King’s Speech”), and, later this year, Gary Oldman. Even the Yanks get a crack now and then; John Lithgow played a florid Winston in the recent Netflix series “The Crown.”
Now it’s Brian Cox’s turn, and the hard-working Scottish actor — you’ve seen him in the “Bourne” movies and virtually everywhere else — is the right age (70) and physique (doughy) to play Churchill in the waning days of World War II. Unfortunately, “Churchill” the movie is simply dreadful, a stiff, melodramatic “Great Man” travesty that gets both the larger history and the details wrong while encouraging its star’s most overwrought excesses. What Cox serves in this movie is ham, poorly sliced.
But no actor could do anything with Alex von Tunzelmann’s tin-eared screenplay, which posits — against all available biographical evidence — that Churchill was dead-set against the Allied Invasion of Normandy to the point where he got into screaming matches with General Dwight D. Eisenhower (a game John Slattery of “Mad Men”), Field Marshal Montgomery (Julian Wadham), his own wife, Clementine (Miranda Richardson), and Jan Smuts (Richard Durden), the former South African prime minister and member of Churchill’s War Cabinet who, if this movie is to be believed, served mostly as Winston’s valet.
Why doesn’t Churchill want D-Day to go ahead? He’s convinced it will turn into another Gallipoli, the WWI battle in which British and Australian troops were massacred. “Churchill” presents its statesman hero as a nervous wreck wracked on the cross of history; his regrets about Gallipoli (which he says he tried to stop but the real Churchill actually oversaw) have blinded him to the necessity of the Allied Invasion. Plus he’s feeling his age and wants to be out on the battlefield with the young men. “Why don’t they just have me stuffed?!” he howls to his wife, who subsequently tries to slap him to his senses.
You can see what the filmmakers are after: a humanizing drama of a historical figure along the lines of “The Queen” (2006) and other peeks behind the curtain of world events. But the dialogue is simple-minded boilerplate delivered in ALL-CAPS crisis mode, with every scene a climactic contest of wills that serves only to embarrass the memory of the people involved. “The invasion of France must be stopped!” Churchill declaims to Eisenhower at one point, to which Ike yells back, “No, you must be stopped!”
It’s Shouty History, in other words, directed without a drop of subtlety by Jonathan Teplitzky, whose last film, “The Railway Man” (2014), was a sticky but moving post-WWII trauma drama. “Churchill” has all the outward trappings of quality, including glossy camerawork (David Higgs) that leans on iconic images like the hero silhouetted against a towering stained-glass window, an orchestral score (Lorne Balfe) that never stops chugging away so we know we’re watching something important, and a cameo appearance by King George VI (James Purefoy), whose famous stammer is augmented here by a lisp that makes him sound vaguely German.
The movie looks good and sounds good, but it’s high-minded codswallop, and Cox’s overmodulated lead performance makes the disaster complete. This Winston flails his arms and wobbles his wattles, flecks spittle and invective at cowering secretaries, wallows in self-pity at top volume, and, in general conducts himself without any of the awareness and humor the real Churchill is said to have possessed.
When “Churchill” gives the character what’s more or less a mad scene against a raging midnight storm, you realize the actor must think he’s playing King Lear. In fact, Cox has played Lear, for the Royal Shakespeare Company in 1990. Someone should have told him he’s not playing it again. Winston Churchill may not have been a paragon in life, but in this film and this performance, he’s more sinned against than sinning.
Directed by Jonathan Teplitzky. Written by Alex von Tunzelmann. Starring Brian Cox, Miranda Richardson, John Slattery. At Kendall Square, West Newton. 98 minutes. PG (thematic elements, brief war images, historical smoking throughout, some language).