“Remember our motto: keep buggering on!”
Although Winston Churchill’s years out of power in the 1930s are often said to be little known or seldom dramatized, the reverse is actually true. Those years are covered in the many Churchill biographies that have appeared and have been dramatized for television three times. The first occasion was a 1974 television film entitled The Gathering Storm in which Richard Burton portrayed Churchill with Virginia McKenna appearing as Churchill’s wife, Clementine. In 1976, preparation began for an eight-hour British television miniseries that would eventually be shown in 1981 entitled Winston Churchill: The Wilderness Years. Robert Hardy (well known to North American audiences for his work as Seigfried Farnon in the “All Creatures Great and Small” British television series) portrayed Churchill while Sian Phillips played Clementine. Martin Gilbert, official biographer of Churchill, served as a consultant on this series and published a book with the same title in conjunction with the series’ release.
Just recently, another film was completed that covered the same ground. It too was entitled The Gathering Storm and was produced by HBO Films in conjunction with the BBC. The film was highly acclaimed, receiving three 2002 Emmy awards (for best film, actor [Albert Finney], and writing) and two 2002 Golden Globes (for best television film or miniseries and best actor in same). This latest version has just recently been released on DVD by HBO.
From 1928 to 1931, Winston Churchill falls from being Chancellor of the Exchequer in the British Conservative government to being completely out of office after the Conservatives were first defeated in an election and then not being asked to take a role in the 1931 National Government.
He retreats to his country home, Chartwell, where he begins a campaign to raise awareness of the threat posed by Germany due to Adolf Hitler’s growing strength and influence, aided by knowledge provided to him secretly by Ralph Wigram of the British Foreign Office. At the same time his daily life, enriched by his warm relationship with his wife, Clementine, is a busy mixture of writing, struggling with tight finances, and restoring Chartwell.
A plot description of this film does not at all do justice to its immense entertainment value as a time capsule of a unique era and the dramatization of one of the most significant world statesmen of the 20th century. Winston Churchill was many things: a soldier, a politician, an accomplished speaker and writer, a devoted husband, a stubborn and arrogant man, a bricklayer and painter, physically disorganized but mentally acute, and virtually all of them are miraculously telescoped into this stunning 96-minute portrait.
Albert Finney does an outstanding job of inhabiting Churchill. From body stature to voice intonation to physical mannerisms, he manages to capture the person about as well as any actor has been able to portray a real historical figure. George C. Scott still takes my vote for the finest such portrayal (in his work as Patton), but Finney isn’t far behind. This is a warts-and-all portrayal that shows us Churchill in every imaginable situation, from padding around naked, to breakfasting in bed, to dictating letters, to supervising renovations, to conspiring with politicians and civil servants, to speaking in the House of Commons. Some may wonder, how interesting can most of that be? Well, in Finney’s hands, it’s mesmerizing, although of course it helps if one has some previous awareness of Churchill to provide a measuring stick for Finney’s efforts.
The supporting cast is composed of the cream of British acting. Vanessa Redgrave matches Finney’s work in her portrayal of Clementine, and their scenes together are simply amazing. Reportedly, when some of the Churchill family saw scenes of the two working together, they were moved to tears, so accurately did the two bring the Churchills’ relationship to life. The production team managed to persuade the likes of Derek Jacobi, Tom Wilkinson, Noel Broadbent, Linus Roache, and even retired comedian Ronnie Barker to lend their talents to the many supporting parts. Respectively, they play Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin, Churchill secret sympathizer Sir Robert Vansittart, intelligence expert Desmond Morton, Ralph Wigram, and Churchill’s butler David Inches. The interactions between all of these characters and Churchill lead to a number of very effective scenes where the director, Richard Loncraine, has chosen interesting locations for events to occur. For example, Vansittart and Wigram have an important discussion about the need for Wigram to proceed with great caution while the two make their way through a busy reception. In another instance, Churchill and Baldwin discuss both their differences and respect for each other in the House of Commons washroom while an attendant stands by impassively.
This is a very handsome production that mixes an entrancing score by Howard Goodall with an impressive collection of location shooting ranging from Chartwell itself to the streets of London and briefly, the House of Commons. The mood of the period and the feel for the man are established immediately with the title sequence of Churchill’s car traveling through the fields to a location where Churchill climbs to look out over the Chartwell lands. The film never falters from there.
HBO’s DVD provides quite a good presentation of the film. The 1.85:1 anamorphically enhanced image is clear if a little soft at times. Edge effects are minor. Overall, the image seems to convey the nature of British weather conditions — muted sunlit passages and misty, cloudy periods — with accuracy. The Dolby Surround track does a more than adequate job with the dialogue, which is clear throughout. Music passages are pleasantly rendered and there is some hint of surround activity in some thunderstorm sequences.
The main supplement is a very informative audio commentary by director Loncraine and producer Frank Doelger. After a bit of a slow start, the two warm to their task and provide us with lots of production and historical information, peppered with the occasional behind-the-scenes story. It’s one of the better commentaries I’ve heard. The other supplement is a collection of nine short cast and crew biographies.
The Gathering Storm is an impressive reconstruction of Winston Churchill’s life during the 1930s — his years out of power between the World Wars. Anyone with even a passing interest in the period or the man will find much to enjoy. The picture is dominated by a wonderful performance by Albert Finney as Churchill, although Vanessa Redgrave’s Clementine is not far behind. HBO’s DVD presentation is satisfying both visually and aurally. Highly recommended.