'Churchill' Review: Brian Cox Shines in Biopic of British Leader on the Brink

Veteran actor turns this portrait of a prime minister in crisis into an acting masterclass

'Churchill' finds Brian Cox playing the legendary British leader – Peter Travers on why he thinks it may be one of the best performances of the year.

Brian Cox is a marvel of an actor, and to watch him tear into the role of Winston Churchill is not to be missed. This is a version of the venerable British Prime Minister we haven't seen before – no longer the lion of British fortitude ("We will fight them on the beaches!"), but a man on the ropes. He's hobbled not just by his alcoholism and "the black dog" of depression, but by his conviction that the D-Day landing, just days away on June 6, 1944, will be a disaster.

Directed by Jonathan Teplitzky, from a script by historian Alex von Tunzelmann, the film turns its camera gaze from the Churchill of legend. The man we see here is haunted by self doubt, the first World War's carnage and the corpses of Gallipoli. At a summit meeting with Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower (John Slattery), the supreme commander of the U.S. and Allied forces, and Field Marshall Bernard Montgomery (Julian Wadham), the British commander of the Allied ground troops, Churchill is determined to persuade them to cancel the Normandy invasion. With grudging respect and then frustrated exasperation, Ike and Monty try to talk the old man out of the haze of his past and into the imperatives of modern warfare.

Even King George VI (James Purefoy), makes a personal plea; ditto his Boer military colleague Jan Smuts (Richard Durden) and his young assistant (Ella Purnell), whose fiancée must report to the front lines. No go. The only recourse is to marginalize him. As for Churchill's no-nonsense wife, Clementine (a ferociously good Miranda Richardson), she's having trouble keeping his despair at bay, especially when the Prime Minister is denied his personal request to hit the beaches with the fighting men.

This is a portrait of a man and a marriage in crisis. And Cox, who gained weight and girth for the role, his face as round as a baby's with an incongruous cigar smack in the center of it, is every inch the crumbling giant. Admittedly, it is hard to watch this statesman reduced so low. By the time the ship is righted and Churchill gives a rousing radio speech, rallying the troops and those tending the homefires, you may wonder how he summoned the stamina and mental agility to remain active in public life for another 20 years. You can certainly argue just how speculative this film version of Churchill is as history. But Cox's performance cannot be faulted. It's a master class in acting.