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 resume 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, the obsessively dutiful Churchill, who has decided to personally observe the D-Day 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 of then-36 years navigate his roiling moods, excessive drinking and an eventual mental and spiritual collapse just prior to D-Day. Buoyed by Richardson's first-rate turn, "Clemmie" proves a fully realized character: integral to her illustrious spouse's stability and well-being, yet progressively aware of her own 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 earnest new secretary, and Richard Durden, as Field Marshal — and Churchill confidant — Jan Smuts, provide memorable support.
Director Jonathan Teplitzky ("The Railway Man") 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.
Rating: PG for thematic elements, brief war images, historical smoking throughout, and some language.
Running time: 1 hour, 44 minutes
Playing: In general release