The rewriting of history by filmmakers is an occupational hazard for audiences. Most aren’t as egregious as some of Hollywood’s biggest distortions, such as Mel Gibson’s William Wallace in Braveheart (1995), and World War II is recent enough to prevent major blunders, deliberate or otherwise.
Of course, dramatisation of events is forgivable on entertainment grounds. But Viceroy’s House went too far in blaming the Partition of India and Pakistan on a British conspiracy to prevent the Soviet Union from gaining access to the Indian Ocean.
One of the villains in this piece was Winston Churchill, who allegedly drew up the plan before World War II broke out.
A new twist on Britain’s most admired prime minister is in Churchill (Transmission), which focuses on the week before the D-Day landings in June 1944.
History is stretched from the start as Churchill (Brian Cox) agonises over the invasion decision while walking on a blood-soaked beach with ghostly images of bodies piled on the sand.
This arises from his much criticised role a generation earlier in the ill-fated Dardanelles campaign, which included the Gallipoli landing. The loss of 56,000 lives in that debacle — more British than Australian and New Zealand — weighs heavily on Churchill as he considers the consequences of another failure.
The Gallipoli angle no doubt also was front-of-mind for Australian director Jonathan Teplitzky (The Railway Man) and his New Zealand-born historian turned screenwriter Alex von Tunzelmann.
Churchill’s personal dilemmas don’t end there. He is also troubled by his relationship with wife Clementine (Miranda Richardson), who is depicted as long-suffering and an emotional rock to his ill-tempered behaviour.
She explains this to his closest colleagues, such as the loyal Jan Smuts (Richard Durden), as well as to the frustrated Allied commanders, Dwight Eisenhower (Mad Men’s John Slattery) and Bernard Montgomery (Julian Wadham).
Showing Churchill at his weakest and most vulnerable, while telescoping this into a few days, creates legitimate high drama, particularly when he gathers himself for his stirring speeches.
Here, there’s more than a hint of similar scenes in The King’s Speech, with King George VI (James Purefoy) ordering Churchill to abandon his reckless desire to lead troops into battle.
In reality, Churchill was firmly committed to the Operation Overlord invasion plan well before D-Day, as it had been carefully conceived to be a surprise for the Germans defending that part of the French coastline.
The film’s budget doesn’t allow for large battle scenes, so the most of the action is in the war rooms and in Downing Street, apart from some sojourns to the sea.
Cox follows a galaxy of stars, including Albert Finney, Richard Burton, Michael Gambon, Timothy Spall and John Lithgow, to play Churchill.
Huge close-ups emphasise the familiar physical characteristics. Naturally a lighted cigar and a glass of Scotch are never far away. Cox’s performance is a career best among many solid but rare leading parts (he played one of the Wallace clan in Braveheart).
The outcome is that Cox’s impersonation dominates the cast, most of whom are relegated to relative insignificance.
Rating: Parental guidance. 98 minutes