End of Glory: “Into the Storm” with Brendan Gleeson and Janet McTeer (2009)

End of Glory: “Into the Storm” with Brendan Gleeson and Janet McTeer (2009)

“Into the Storm,” a tele­vi­sion dra­ma broad­cast by the BBC and HBO. Pro­duced by Rid­ley Scott, direct­ed by Thad­deus O’Sullivan. Bren­dan Glee­son as Win­ston Churchill and Janet McTeer as Clemen­tine Churchill. Screen­play by Hugh Whitemore.

Then out spake brave Horatius,
The Cap­tain of the Gate:
“To every man upon this earth
Death cometh soon or late.
And how can man die better
Than fac­ing fear­ful odds,
For the ash­es of his fathers,
And the tem­ples of his gods…”

—“Hor­atius,” stan­za XXVII in Lays of Ancient Rome, by Thomas Bab­bing­ton Macaulay. Recit­ed at the begin­ning and at the end of “Into the Storm.”

Here is a TV docu­d­ra­ma pack­ing excep­tion­al hon­esty. At an age when most men retire (or in his time die), Churchill gets com­mand of his nation when no one else wants it. It is Britain’s great­est cri­sis in his­to­ry. They fight alone, save for their kith and kin.  And they win—only to see the old man dis­missed in the moment of victory.

Gleeson at his Churchilllian best

The open­ing scene is Hen­daye, France, July 1945, where Churchill, his wife and daugh­ter Mary spend a week’s break. It is between polling-day in the British Gen­er­al Elec­tion and the start of the Pots­dam Con­fer­ence. Anx­ious for elec­tion returns, Churchill relives the past five years in a series of flash­backs. This is the film’s one jar­ring ele­ment. The back-and-forth occurs with­out obvi­ous tran­si­tion. You have to remind your­self whether you are in the past or present. It is the only fault worth not­ing. The sto­ry is mas­sive, the action real, the his­to­ry hon­est, the dia­logue con­vinc­ing. The scenes are art­ful, the act­ing superb.

Bren­dan Glee­son, who in life speaks with a heavy Irish brogue, is the best Churchill since Robert Hardy. He falls into none of the usu­al traps. Most Churchill imper­son­ators over­do the accent or the famous lisp. They repeat the V-sign, toi­let scenes and siren suits. These are car­i­ca­tures paint­ed by Lord Moran or Alan­brooke. Gleeson’s work was praised by WSC’s daugh­ter Lady Soames, the sternest of critics.

Good scriptwriting

Hugh White­more was sen­si­tive scriptwriter of Scott’s pre­ced­ing film, “The Gath­er­ing Storm.” Again he helps by not load­ing the dia­logue with soar­ing rhetoric. “Papa spoke in pri­vate,” his daugh­ter says, “much as he did in pub­lic.” And here is the pri­vate Churchill, with doubts about win­ning, fears of the future, and faults of his own—for he was as human as any­one, freely admit­ted it, and often apol­o­gized for it, espe­cial­ly to his wife.

Sev­er­al quotes, though real enough, are tak­en out of time or con­text. But White­more blends them flaw­less­ly into the sto­ry, and the stu­dent of Churchill’s words doesn’t mind. Sev­er­al scenes—the famous “naked encounter” with Roo­sevelt is one—didn’t hap­pen that way, but are so seam­less­ly inte­grat­ed and well act­ed as to make them believ­able and accept­able. Churchill’s habits—like the manda­to­ry sies­ta which enabled him to work into the wee hours—are deft­ly con­veyed in a line of dia­logue. There is no bend­ing of his­to­ry for the sake of dra­ma. Only the advanced pedant can object to the film’s artis­tic license.

Gleeson
Yal­ta, 1945: Glee­son, Car­i­ou, Patrenko (HBO).

Janet McTeer is no Vanes­sa Red­grave, the arche­typ­al Clemen­tine in “The Gath­er­ing Storm.” She doesn’t even look like Clem­mie, falling short of the char­ac­ter described by her daugh­ter Mary’s biog­ra­phy. Though she gives WSC good advice, she seems more of a neu­rot­ic scold than a pil­lar of strength. It doesn’t mat­ter because Glee­son, “throws him­self into the char­ac­ter and com­plete­ly owns him,” as Daniel Carl­son writes, “from the non­stop cig­ars to the famous cadence of his speech­es. Glee­son is believ­ably tough but doesn’t make Churchill a war­mon­ger or bul­ly; if any­thing, he’s bur­dened by the thought of the boys he has sent to die.”

Pros and Cons

Carl­son has his fin­ger on the out­stand­ing qual­i­ty of this film: its sen­si­tiv­i­ty to Churchill’s true per­sona. Despite many oppor­tu­ni­ties for igno­rant polit­i­cal posturing—the lev­el­ing of Ger­man cities, for example—Scott and White­more always have Churchill say­ing what he tru­ly believed—culled in this case from My Ear­ly Life (1930): “War, which used to be cru­el and mag­nif­i­cent, has now become cru­el and squalid.”

”Into the Storm” packs less depth than “The Gath­er­ing Storm”—like the per­se­cu­tion of Ralph Wigram for send­ing WSC secret reports on Ger­man rear­ma­ment, and the brav­ery of his wife Ava dur­ing threats against their fam­i­ly. But too much is going on for side­bars. This is World War II, remem­ber: the French deba­cleDunkirk, the Bat­tle of Britain, the Blitz, Pearl Har­bor, Sin­ga­pore, the fraught meet­ings with Roo­sevelt (Len Car­i­ou) and Stal­in (Alexy Patrenko), the all-or-noth­ing assault on Nor­mandy. Lead­er­ship is the plot, sub-plot and sidebar.

***

Some Churchillians have asked why Rid­ley Scott couldn’t have stopped at Pearl Har­bor, and done a third film lat­er; why there couldn’t be mul­ti­ple parts; why it wasn’t a Churchill ver­sion of “Lord of the Rings.” Indeed, I crit­i­cized “The Gath­er­ing Storm” for skip­ping over Neville Cham­ber­lain and Munich. But the best edi­tor I ever worked for said: “A bore is some­one who tells every­thing.” And we are not film­mak­ers. We have no idea what con­straints the pro­duc­ers labored under. We do know that Rid­ley Scott had nine­ty min­utes. And what he does to por­tray the real Win­ston Churchill is a work of genius.

My endur­ing impres­sion of “Into the Storm” is of an old man, real­iz­ing after the most hero­ic chap­ter in his country’s his­to­ry that his­to­ry itself has passed him by, the Britain he loved van­ished before his eyes. “The palmy days of Queen Vic­to­ria and a set­tled world order,” as Churchill put it in 1947, are gone for­ev­er. The war is won, the coun­try lost in a Social­ist dream. Hard­ly, alas, unfa­mil­iar: a sig­nal mes­sage in 2009.

Modern reflections

A lot of us who grew up in Churchill’s time feel the way Churchill does at the end of this film, as he reads a sym­pa­thet­ic post-elec­tion note from his old friend Jack Seely: “I feel our world slip­ping away.” Churchill thinks back: “I met him in South Africa, rid­ing across the veldt. He was Col. Seely then. I saw him at the head of a col­umn of British cav­al­ry, rid­ing twen­ty yards in front, on a black horse. I thought of him as the very sym­bol of Impe­r­i­al power.”

Watch­ing this film, I had the odd sen­sa­tion that it was well Britain chose World War II for what John Charm­ley called “The End of Glo­ry.” British pow­er and faith, focused one last time by a leader steeped in his­to­ry and lan­guage, held the fort “till those who hith­er­to had been half blind were half ready.” Bet­ter to go out in a flash of light than face the long decline that seems now to attend anoth­er super­pow­er. “The proud Amer­i­can will go down into his slav­ery with­out a fight,” Prav­da (aston­ish­ing­ly) declared, “beat­ing his chest and pro­claim­ing to the world how free he real­ly is.” That will take years. For Britain the End of Glo­ry came in months.

“Yes, I’ve worked very hard and achieved a great deal,” Churchill reflect­ed at the end of his long life, “only to achieve noth­ing in the end.” A life that rose to the heights of fame, the hon­ors of the world show­ered upon him—for what? “I feel,” he said, “like an aero­plane at the end of its flight, in the dusk, with the petrol run­ning out, in search of a safe landing.”

Not only he.

2 thoughts on “End of Glory: “Into the Storm” with Brendan Gleeson and Janet McTeer (2009)

  1. I ful­ly agree about that the sto­ry is mas­sive, the action real, the his­tory hon­est, the dia­logue con­vinc­ing, the scenes art­ful, the act­ing superb, includ­ing Ms.McTeer´s per­for­mance. Yes she is no Vanes­sa Red­grave, but they both are unique actors in their own way. As a Uruguayan fan of British actors and the UK tra­di­tion of great the­atre, thanks for remind­ing us of the sac­ri­fice of Churchill’s gen­er­a­tion, and the val­ues they fight for.

  2. After World War One, Churchill lament­ed using Thomas Moore’s words, “I feel like one / Who treads alone / Some ban­quet-hall desert­ed, / Whose lights are fled, / Whose gar­lands dead / And all but he depart­ed!” How much more poignant were those sen­ti­ments run­ning through Churchill’s mind after the close of World War Two? Alas, those of us who are steeped in his­to­ry, espe­cial­ly Churchill’s prophet­ic obser­va­tions, must feel today a sim­i­lar sad­ness. The val­ues we hold to be true con­cern­ing states­man­ship, democ­ra­cy, cap­i­tal­ism, and faith are large­ly regard­ed today by the mass of men as an anachro­nism. Per­haps as we con­sid­er what we (Amer­i­ca and mankind) have lost, then we can appre­ci­ate in part Churchill’s inner turmoil.

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