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Narrow 'Churchill' is a well-acted but unflattering portrait of 'the greatest Briton'

“CHURCHILL” — 2 stars — Brian Cox, Miranda Richardson, John Slattery, Julian Wadham, Ella Purnell; PG (thematic elements, brief war images, historical smoking throughout and some language); in general release

The title of director Jonathan Teplitzky’s “Churchill” feels a little deceptive. The bold and simple title suggests a broad and comprehensive biopic that will offer a complete look into one of the greatest political figures of the 20th century, but Teplitzky’s 98-minute effort is set during a brief three-day window that doesn’t put the former British prime minister in the most flattering light.

We meet Winston Churchill (Brian Cox) a few days shy of the D-Day invasion in 1944. Plans have been in place for a month, but at a meeting with high-ranking military leaders — including General Dwight D. Eisenhower (John Slattery) — Churchill argues against Operation Overlord. Still smarting from the casualties he witnessed in World War I, Churchill fears the all-out assault on the beaches of northern France will be a futile slaughter.

Eisenhower suggests this opinion might have been useful earlier in the process, and as he circumvents the politician and proceeds with the operation, “Churchill’s” central conflict is put in place. We are witnessing the sad struggle of a formerly great leader, clinging to his remaining authority and acting on a combination of noble and selfish intentions.

We see him barking at office staffers like a grumpy tyrant, and battling with his wife, Clementine (Miranda Richardson). At one point, almost in desperation, Churchill briefly convinces King George VI (James Purefoy) to join him on one of the invading ships, trying to demonstrate some symbolic form of relevance. But that effort is rejected as well.

As an episode placed in the context of others — say, one that showed his prowess during the Blitz — “Churchill” manages to flesh out a character central to recent history. But on its own, “Churchill” feels incomplete and a little sad. It’s a movie about a man learning to overcome himself, learning to let go, and it doesn’t quite feel like it does its subject justice.

It’s also, frankly, a little dull. The leaders we watch are preparing for one of the most dramatic episodes in military history, but we’re watching them far removed from the action, exclusively behind the scenes. The fact that we know what is going to happen — and that Churchill’s position is wrong — saps any tension from the narrative.

That being said, Cox is a strong match for Churchill, absorbing himself into the subject’s mannerisms without projecting a gimmicky impression. Cinematographer David Higgs uses many shots to capture the distinctive visual silhouette of the iconic prime minister as well, often matched against a suitably dreary English overcast. A moment when Churchill flashes the two-fingered “victory” sign to some children feels especially meaningful.

Richardson also has a good turn as Clementine. While Churchill wrestles with his role in wartime, he is frequently reminded of how his career has compromised his most important personal relationships, and Richardson succeeds in their scenes with a subtlety that avoids being overbearing.

Overall, the strong performances and striking visuals may not be enough to offset “Churchill’s” weaker points. Taken on its own, “Churchill” feels like a brief episode in a full and dynamic life of what the film calls, “the greatest Briton of all time.” But audiences will be left thinking the greatest Briton deserves the full treatment.

“Churchill” is rated PG for thematic elements, brief war images, historical smoking throughout and some language; running time: 98 minutes.