The difficulty in bringing larger-than-life historical figures to the big screen is that the actor in charge of the performance is usually twice impugned by the subject being portrayed: once by a span of years (most biopics are made long after the actual person is dead, thereby depriving the thespian of direct consultation for inspiration), and then, by the daunting back catalog of popular opinion documented in literature (newspapers, autobiographies, unauthorized biographies and newsreel footage) made available to the actor. Alas, such tertiary content tends to color opinion and transform a seemingly ordinary creature of flesh and blood into the most rarified of icons. As such, the actor’s impersonation is dedicated to ‘the monument’ instead of the person, the artistry devolving into camp – or worse, abject mimicry.
All evidence to the contrary in director, Richard Loncraine’s The Gathering Storm (2002), a superb dramatization that provides Albert Finney with the daunting assignment of resurrecting the gutsy pugnaciousness of Sir Winston Churchill. Like his American counterpart, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Churchill is an impossibly complex figure to emulate with any degree of certainty, much less competence, perhaps even more so because Churchill was chiefly instrumental in muddying the waters of his own legacy. Once asked how history would come to regard him, Churchill’s blunt reply “Kindly…for I intend to write it” is, in effect, a sideswipe to any actor facing the challenge of conjuring up his presence without succumbing to the elephantiasis of the exercise. Yet, here is a task for which Albert Finney was seemingly created; Finney of sufficient experience, years, skill and physical type-casting essential to carry off the illusion without so much as a superficially awkward misstep.
To discover Finney in rare form on this outing is perhaps no surprise. He is unequivocally one of the last in a vanishing breed of British actors. First dazzling international audiences in 1960’s brilliant Saturday Night and Sunday Morning, Finney has long since proven he can play everything from a randy English lord (1963’s Tom Jones) to an estranged and embittered married newlywed (Two for the Road, 1967) to the deliciously fastidious, Belgian sleuth, Hercule Poirot (Murder on the Orient Express, 1974) and, stern, though benevolent, Oliver ‘Daddy’ Warbucks (Annie, 1980) with aplomb, confidence and a merciless amount of inventive cheek. Finney has the guts, brains and temerity to be Churchill incarnate, even as we first observe this great man practicing his recitation to the House of Commons while standing nude before the porcelain bowl in his upstairs bathroom and peeing. It’s a self-deprecating moment in Hugh Whitemore’s teleplay, one of several peppered throughout and meant to humanize Churchill via his own caustic humor. Churchill, so we quickly discover, was far less the monument and far more the frustrated politico who, at least on the home front, was contending with a vivacious and strong-minded wife, Clementine ‘Clemmie’ (superbly realized by Vanessa Redgrave), ambitionless son, Randolph (Tom Hiddleston) and free-spirited daughter, Sarah (Dolly Wells), whose flighty daydreams of becoming a legitimate actress would eventually be realized in 1951, when the real Sarah Churchill co-starred with Fred Astaire and Jane Powell in the MGM musical, Royal Wedding.
At 96 minutes, Richard Loncraine hasn’t the time to plum any of this fertile backstory in great depth (although, it is rumored a European cut of The Gathering Storm runs 120 min.). What is quite marvelous about the 90 min. American edit is how succinctly it plays without rushing through these narrative portholes from the past. Whitemore’s teleplay captures a mere snapshot from the historical record – a moment when the tide of popular opinion was turned in Churchill’s favor. Here is the man before he stood taller than most, teetering on the cusp of his own preeminence. And yet, somehow, it is quite enough to whet the appetite and invigorate our appreciation for the portly British bulldog peeking out from behind the legacy. What is quite remarkable, apart from Albert Finney’s eerie physical assimilation, is the actor’s ability to so completely absorb the quintessence of his alter ego – arguably, concocting a private self few in Churchill’s presence were ever privy to witness. The cumulative result is we quite easily forget this is Albert Finney - and not, Winston Churchill - almost from the moment Finney first appears on the screen.
There is a two-fold presence here; the actor portraying the myth, even as he systematically debunks the mythology buttressing our collective impressions of this larger-than-life 20th century leader. Finney’s Churchill is a man of doubts; even more disturbingly, of guarded fallibilities tucked awkwardly behind his documented efforts to shape and mold public policies and his own public image in tandem. He struggles with diplomatic ambitions, but more importantly, with bouts of anxiety over his inability to will this conception into a reality. Whitemore’s teleplay is particularly adept at paralleling Churchill’s private concerns with those more ominous trepidations facing the nation, shadowy and looming large on the horizon.
Albert Finney, in his BAFTA and Emmy award-winning performance, is the consummate professional – no secret or surprise there. Yet, his Churchill is more than a man, even as he remains mercifully less of a candidate for canonization in the annals of British 20th century history; Finney’s tenuous balance between these seemingly irreconcilable poles never faltering for a second. When Finney bellows on the floor of parliament, it is the Churchill we recall from vintage newsreels of the period. When he tenderly emotes oddly infantile platitudes of love, begging an emotionally-wounded Clemmie to remain at his side, his tenderness is infused with a base masculinity and deeply affecting sincerity no one – least of all, his wife and the audience – can resist.
And then, of course, there is Vanessa Redgrave’s Clemmie to consider. Here again, we are blessed with an actress who knows her own mind and available strengths, and, is able to carry over both to her portrayal of this ‘woman behind the throne’. Clemmie is a devoted wife and mother. But she is as much her own person as she remains moderately contented to act from the wings on her husband’s behalf. At the start of our story Clementine is, in fact, very much taken for granted by Churchill, merely another appendage of the household support system that has buttressed the old man in his political endeavors for some time. However, this trestle is about to be tested. And Clemmie’s patience will stretch only so far. Again, in barely an hour and a half, Redgrave manages to clearly delineate the varying attributes of this complex woman with a sense of proportion. Not only is she an actress poised to rival Albert Finney, her Clemmie is a formidable partner for our blustering man of action.
If only for Finney and Redgrave, The Gathering Storm would already have much to recommend it. But Hugh Whitemore’s prose introduce a subplot into the proceedings, as tragic and arguably, as compelling, as the principle narrative thread; this one involving a junior member of parliament, Ralph Wigram (Linus Roache), his devoted wife, Ava (Lena Headey) and their severely mentally challenged son, Charley (Laurie Flexman). Others in the supporting cast include the incomparable Jim Broadbent, as mutual family friend, Desmond Morton; Tom Wilkinson as wily politico, Sir Robert Vansittart, and, Derek Jacobi, Churchill’s ill-fated predecessor, Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin. Both in front of and behind the camera, The Gathering Storm is impeccably cast; pedigreed with exemplary production values; Howard Goodall’s inspiring underscore, Peter Hannan’s gorgeous cinematography, Luciana Arrighi’s peerless production design and Jenny Beavan’s flawless costuming among them.
Our story begins in 1934. Winston Churchill’s political career is in utter disarray. Not only has he fallen to the backbenches of a nearly empty and thoroughly ineffectual parliament, but the stubborn and forceful resolve of his political convictions has cost him the respect of both parties. In an England wary of another world war, Churchill is surrounded by naysayer pundits. Even Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin (Derek Jacobi) is embarrassed by what he misperceives as Churchill’s pathetic futility to stir political animosity and public dissention against a free Germany. At home, Winston’s authority is also in question. He’s a figurehead more than a patriarch, moderately tolerated by his children and placated by the rest of the household staff. Although he has been working on his memoirs for some time, Churchill’s attention span, setbacks in his career, and, his fiery temperament often prove a distraction. He is exceedingly annoyed with daughter, Sarah’s (Dolly Wells) desire to become an actress; perhaps equally concerned over son, Randolph’s (Tom Hiddleston) late night boozing, and, facing the very real specter of personal bankruptcy. Flying in the face of this ‘gathering storm’ is Winston’s greatest comfort; his wife, Clemmie (Vanessa Redgrave). Always a stabilizing force, she brings order and calm to the daily fray and regimented routine to bear on his breakneck schedule of public addresses.
Battling personal demons, Churchill entrusts his concerns to longtime family friend – and British spy – Desmond Morton (Jim Broadbent). It is Morton who first introduces Winston to Ralph Wigram (Linus Roache); a foreign secretary with access to secret government files that can help Churchill in his uphill battle, convincing parliament of the very real danger Adolph Hitler’s Germany poses to England’s tenuous talks for ‘peace in our time’. Wigram is reluctant to leak information about Hitler’s renewed militarization plans and a reinvigorated Luftwaffe. It could cost him his job if anyone finds out. Alas, Wigram is a doting father and husband, fearful of what it will mean for his family if war should come. And he has Charlie to consider; a child severely afflicted with mental retardation, requiring all of the couple’s love, patience and attention.
When Churchill launches a verbal attack on Baldwin in parliament, using secret information given to him by Wigram to help bolster his case, Baldwin becomes suspicious of Churchill’s connections. Although not without his enemies, Baldwin knows that, once provoked, Churchill is a formidable foe. Baldwin puts out feelers regarding who is feeding Churchill his information, placing an incredible strain on the Wigram household and Ralph in particular. As the country is drawn nearer to war, Baldwin’s faith in a peace pact with Hitler is proven foolhardy. Things on the home front reach a critical point when Churchill takes Clemmie for granted. She is incensed and embarks upon a lengthy holiday abroad that has all the ear-markings of a marital separation. Wigram, who cannot see any future for himself within this devious interplay of espionage, is pushed to the brink, ultimately taking his own life to spare his family his personal shame. At Wigram’s funeral, Churchill learns of Baldwin’s misguided attempt to appease Germany. Churchill is overwhelmingly restored to power and prominence; appointed to take command of the Royal Navy as First Lord of the Admiralty.
Clemmie returns home to stand at her husband’s side. Churchill is so utterly grateful for this second opportunity to honor his wife he darts playfully across the reflecting pond to meet her arrival at the front gates of their country estate. The family bids farewell to their servants. The manor house is shuttered as Churchill and Clemmie prepare to make their new home at 10 Downing Street. Arriving in London under the cover of darkness, Churchill is met by a Royal Marine Corporal who informs him the fleet has already been signaled ‘Winston is back’ to which an ebullient Churchill emphatically replies, “He bloody well is!” A brief epilogue informs us of the varied accomplishments wrought on Churchill’s watch before the screen fades to black.
Initially planned as something of the first installment in a miniseries for HBO, The Gathering Storm was followed up by a delayed sequel seven year’s later; 2009’s Into the Storm. This time, Churchill was played by Brendan Gleeson. Alas, Gleeson’s portrayal lacks Albert Finney’s finesse and inimitable charm. By all biographical accounts, Winston Churchill was not a ‘charming’ fellow – at least, not in the traditional sense. What he proved to be was enigmatic, if as dogmatic. Finney’s performance manages to capture this essential quality of Churchill’s enigma without becoming slavishly resolved to anchor his interpretation in blind mimicry of his mannerisms and precepts. The effect proves uncanny and supremely satisfying. Screenwriter, Hugh Whitemore brilliantly condenses Churchill’s private history into a manageable teleplay that dots all the ‘I’s and crosses every ‘T’; or rather, seems to imply a lot of ground has been covered in a relatively short period of time. We go from Churchill’s relative political obscurity to his reinstatement as Britain’s most ardent champion against Hitler, never losing sight of the intimate back story.
As Churchill, Albert Finney is the embodiment of sustentative stoicism. We get a real sense of the man, his values as well as his caste; Finney delving into a vibrant wellspring of human emotions to reveal a richly textured tapestry of life. Peter Hannan’s evocative cinematography does an exquisite job of capturing England in the 1930’s. Visually, we are treated to some truly memorable visuals, particularly the opening sequence in which Churchill stands silent and curiously absorbed while looking over a bucolic field of grain, envisioning his ancestors at war; the stir of drums and fife echoing in his eardrums. In hindsight, The Gathering Storm is one of the finest productions to emerge from HBO – no strangers to producing TV drama that is far and away above the regular compost passing for entertainment these days. ‘Superb’ is somehow grossly inadequate to describe it.
HBO Home Video’s anamorphic DVD delivers a rather impressive image, although I would challenge HBO to give us a Blu-ray of this magnificent ‘made for TV’ movie. On the whole, this DVD is smoothly rendered with colors that are warm and bold. Flesh tones are accurately represented. Occasionally, an awkward softness creeps in; faces losing their subtle, craggy lines. These are minor quibbles at best. Other good news; the image has retained excellent contrast and a smattering of film grain that appears to be indigenous to its source. For a DVD, this is a fairly impressive release and one surely not to disappoint. The Dolby Stereo surround audio is adequate, though unremarkable. Dialogue is clear and Howard Goodall’s underscore sound fabulous. Apart from a fairly fascinating audio commentary by director, Richard Loncraine and his producer, Frank Doelger, there are NO extras. Bottom line: Very highly recommended for content and generally recommended for quality. But please, HBO – how about a snazzy 1080p release for 2015? Pretty please?
FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)