Whether it’s mere coincidence or repeated cases of industrial espionage, rival Hollywood studios frequently get the niggling itch to celebrate the life of an icon in the same year, clobbering popular culture around the head with simultaneous biopic releases. To name but a few: 2006’s double helping of Truman Capote with the Oscar-winning Capote and the underseen Infamous, 2014’s Yves Saint Laurent and Saint Laurent, and last year’s Florence Foster Jenkins and Christine Chubbuck biopics… The pattern repeats like clockwork.
The latest twin film phenomenon will grace multiplexes with duelling biopics about the life of Britain’s most famous PM. The adventurously-titled Churchill is the first out of the gate and follows the days before the Normandy landings, and how the gung-ho attitude of General Eisenhower and other political figures clashed with Winston Churchill’s reticence to give the go-ahead for Operation Overlord.
Brian Cox looks and sounds the part in the lead role, and the rest of the cast, including Miranda Richardson, John Slattery and an unrecognisable James Purefoy as King George VI, all provide admirable, if stagey, performances. The problem is that the material just isn’t there, and decent performances aside, this fact-fudging D-Day drama feels gratingly inert and too often errs on the wrong side of trite. This leads to rather obvious hero worship and fumbled narrative strands dealing with the marital strife occurring between Winston and his long-suffering wife, Clementine, played with poise by Richardson. Jonathan Teplitzky, who makes his directorial return after 2013’s The Railway Man, unambitiously decides to tick every box the biopic genre has to offer. The repetitive, overwrought screenplay by Alex von Tunzelmann doesn’t burden itself with too many subtleties about the inner workings of political egos and how an exhausted leader struggled to relinquish his public role as the Blitz hero, and is instead laden with trailer-tailored lines such as “We must fix this broken plan before it ends in tragedy” and self-serving clangers posing as insightful titbits like “I thought you were the bravest man in England”. By the time the final scene arrives, featuring that iconic Homburg hat rolling around on deserted sands while the obligatory end-of-biopic text manifests and tells you that The British Bulldog is “often acclaimed as the greatest Briton of all time”, you’ll be aching to fight Tunzelmann on the beaches.
Ultimately, what this required to be a success was a lean, stage-based two-hander between Cox and Slattery, much like Cyril Gely’s play featuring André Dussollier and Niels Arestrup, who both subsequently reprised their roles in Volker Schlondorff’s film Diplomacy. And while time will tell whether Joe Wright’s The Darkest Hour, starring Gary Oldman as the cigar-chomping PM, will fare better, what is certain is that 2017’s second Churchill film needn’t fear any competition from this middling melodrama.
Churchill | Directed by Jonathan Teplitzky (UK, 2017) with Brian Cox, Miranda Richardson, John Slattery. Starts May 25
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