2017 has been a big year for British-made (or at least, British director-made) movies about World War II, and it takes a lot to be the most fucking stupid out of all of them. But Churchill, written by Alex von Tunzelmann and directed by Jonathan Teplitzky, is amply up to the task. I hope we can all agree that films altering historical facts when its dramatically advantageous to do so is (or at least, can be) a justifiable action in certain surroundings, but there's "altering historical facts" and then there titling a film Churchill and the inserting as protagonist a man who resembles Prime Minister Winston Churchill in almost no ways whatsoever. Perhaps if this was an alternate-universe what-if scenario titled A Very Grumpy Englishman and divorced from the context of the Second World War, it would be possible to admire it as a character study, though it would still not be a very good one.

In this elaborately wrong story, Churchill (played by Brian Cox) is awaiting the arrival of 6 June, 1944, with absolute dread. Convinced that the ambitious, minutely-planned Operation Overlord is a reckless gamble that will leave thousands dead with nothing to show for it but an emboldened German army, he's spending the last few days before the Allied landings on the beaches of Normandy attempting to convince the rest of the high command of the European forces - Field Marshal Bernard Montgomery (Julian Wadham), General Dwight Eisenhower (John Slattery), Field Marshal Alan Brooke (Danny Webb) - to delay the invasion until it can be re-planned to have less of an "all our eggs in one basket" approach. They rightly regard this as fucking demented, because it's more or less impossible to conceive of a man in Churchill's position deciding on 3 June to start raising a fuss about the most fully worked-out military plan of the whole war three days before it's to be executed, but what they don't know is that the reluctant prime minister has a good reason for his reservations: he remains traumatised by his failure as commander during the 1915 Gallipoli campaign, and the countless lives lost as a result of his mismanagement, and he sees in all his hallucinations of blood-soaked tides a repeat of this carnage.

I'm exaggerating. There's only one scene where Churchill hallucinates blood-soaked tides. It's just that it's the first scene in the movie, so it benefits from the primacy effect.

God knows what purpose this was meant to serve: it doesn't seem like butchering Churchill's character in this way could be of benefit to either the people who enthusiastically praise his legacy, nor those who wish to tear him down. Regardless of its goals, though, it doesn't succeed in them: the whole film is such a grinding dirge that no sort of thematic import can scrabble its way out. Very nearly the entire running time of Churchill finds the title character arguing, in mostly the same language and with mostly the same people, and growing agitated when they ignore him. Sometimes, the film rouses itself from its soporific sameness by focusing attention instead on the relationship between Churchill and his wife Clementine (Miranda Richardson), and these scenes are precious as gold, because Richardson is the only person in the film who seems largely credible as a human being. It is, otherwise, a collection of strange casting choices (Slattery as Eisenhower, James Purefoy as King George VI) that result in the actors trying very hard to create something sensible despite themselves.

And then there's the none too insignificant matter of Brian Cox as Churchill, one of those things that sounds so absolutely perfect on paper, and then turns out to be completely atrocious in the execution. No disrespect at all to Cox, an actor I have loved many times and look forward to loving many times again in the future. He's just a remarkably bad fit for Churchill. The plummy, wordy outrage that comes through in Churchill's words and recorded footage of the man are too indelible to break away from the stereotype as thoroughly as Cox does; his Churchill is a panicked animal, driven into a corner by the ghosts of his past failures, and prone to flashing his teeth and snarling; and at the same time, he's a got the he grimacing working-class hulk of many another Cox character, presenting himself to his political enemies like they're on opposite sides of a barfight. At one point, Churchill mentions that his mother was from Brooklyn, which is historically true (the very upper-class part of Brooklyn, mind you), and yet I'm not sure that I've seen another screen Churchill who would feel the need to establish that. This version of the man isn't an arrogant wit, using words and oratory to devastate his opponents, but there's nothing to replace the vacuum in psychology that creates.

Absent a solid handle on Churchill, I don't know what Churchill could possibly have done to compensate. The answer, in practice, is "damn close to nothing". It's a stylistic hodge-podge, shamefacedly abandoning ideas that don't work out (early on, half of a scene ends in black-and-white; this seemed odd when I expected it to pay off, and wholly inept once it proved not to), and hopefully plugging in long shots that position Churchill and others as tiny specks in a great widescreen frame as an attempt to evoke... the weight of history? The scope of the problem of the war? I have no idea, honestly, but some of the shots are pretty to look at.

Basically, the whole thing is under-conceived, absurdly dull, and thematically murky, and Richardson's transparently impatient Clemmie Churchill, though a snippy delight, isn't nearly enough to ground the thing in character dynamics. This film's take on Winston Churchill's psychological character is inspid and clichéd on top of being unfounded by anything in the history books; it tries to enforce a "personal tragedy guides present actions" biopic formula on a story that desperately does not need it. The whole thing is insultingly redundant, supposing in advance that the viewer needs the simplest, blandest version of the story to make heads or tails out of it, and as a result telling a story about wartime ethics that feels safe and predigested like even the most tacky Oscarbait of recent years hasn't managed. It is a film that thinks so highly of its viewers that it takes two title cards at the end to explain what side won WWII, and the entirety of the 100 minutes leading up to that point make it totally unsurprising that this inelegant, idiotic final gesture would be the point that the film was leading up to, all along.