Albert Finney in “The Gathering Storm”

Albert Finney in “The Gathering Storm”

“The Gath­er­ing Storm,” a film for tele­vi­sion pro­duced by BBC Films and HBO Inc.. Star­ring Albert Finney as Win­ston Churchill and Vanes­sa Red­grave as Clemen­tine. First aired April 2002, 90 min­utes.

Churchill films sel­dom engen­der una­nim­i­ty. But every­one who watched the pre­view, by kind invi­ta­tion of the British Con­sul in Boston, had the same reac­tion. “The Gath­er­ing Storm” is real­ly good. Even in a cyn­i­cal and anti-hero age, film­mak­ers still can avoid reduc­ing Churchill to a flawed bur­lesque or a god­like car­i­ca­ture. Except for huge gap in the sto­ry line, “The Gath­er­ing Storm” is out­stand­ing.

Great Heroine Performances

The two great­est sup­port­ing roles are female. Clemen­tine Churchill was mis­played by Sian Phillips in the “Wilder­ness Years” doc­u­men­tary. But here Clem­mie gets jus­tice at the hands of Vanes­sa Red­grave.

Red­grave not only looks the part—grandson Win­ston Churchill, who should know, told me the resem­blance is uncan­ny. But scriptwriter Hugh White­more has also pro­vid­ed her with exact­ly the right lines as she cajoles, scolds, whee­dles and encour­ages her hus­band. “I often put myself in Clemmie’s shoes,” wrote Lady Diana Coop­er. “And often felt how they pinched and rubbed till I kicked them off, hero­ic soles and all, and begged my hus­band to rest and be care­ful. For­tu­nate­ly, Clem­mie was a mor­tal of anoth­er clay.”

Ava Wigram

Equal­ly com­pelling is Ava (Lena Head­ey), the beau­ti­ful wife of Ralph Wigram (Linus Roache). As Mar­tin Gilbert revealed in the offi­cial biog­ra­phy, Wigram risked his career to bring Churchill secrets on Ger­man rear­ma­ment. Devot­ed­ly, Ava bears her husband’s strain, their deep con­cern for their young, autis­tic son. And the worst that pol­i­tics can throw at her.

Angered by Wigram’s aid to Churchill, the gov­ern­ment reacts. A toady named Pet­tifer (actu­al­ly Board of Trade Pres­i­dent Wal­ter Runci­man) vis­its Ava with a threat. If her hus­band doesn’t stop help­ing Churchill he will be trans­ferred abroad, leav­ing Ava and the boy alone in Lon­don. She tells him to do his worst and throws him out.

This is an over­due trib­ute to a lit­tle-known hero­ine. Ava Bod­ley mar­ried Ralph Wigram in 1925. After Ralph’s pre­ma­ture death in 1936 she wrote to Churchill… “He adored you so & always said you were the great­est Eng­lish­man alive.” In 1941 she mar­ried John Ander­son, Vis­count Waver­ly, Home Sec­re­tary and Chan­cel­lor of the Exche­quer. It was he for whom the Ander­son Shel­ter was named. Churchill was devot­ed to Ava all his life. When Ander­son died in 1958, Churchill tele­phoned her from Chartwell. “After com­mis­er­at­ing with her on Lord Waverly’s death he was silent for a while,” writes Mar­tin Gilbert. Then he said “with what sound­ed like tears in his voice, ‘For Ralph Wigram grieve.'”

Finney and Supporting Cast

Albert Finney as Churchill, is ten or fif­teen years too old and looks more like WSC’s nephew Pere­grine. But his man­ner­isms and pale blue eyes are right, and he grows on you, despite unnec­es­sary toi­let scenes and red vel­vet siren suits worn round the clock. Finney over­plays the role—every Churchill imper­son­ator does, except the inim­itable Robert Hardy. But he is all right. Again Whitemore’s script comes through. Here and there is a snatch of words Churchill spoke in lat­er or dif­fer­ent con­texts. (A 1939 broad­cast to Amer­i­ca is recast as a Com­mons speech in 1936.) But the flow is so seam­less that only the deter­mined crit­ic will notice.

The rest of the cast­ing is good—not as phys­i­cal­ly exact as in “The Wilder­ness Years,” but con­vinc­ing and fine­ly direct­ed by Richard Lon­craine. Sarah Churchill should have had a flame red wig to hide that mousy hair, and Bren­dan Brack­en also starts too dark-haired, though his mop red­dens as the cri­sis mounts! Ran­dolph Churchill is too young and sil­ly. Nigel Havers was a bet­ter Ran­dolph in the 1982 ver­sion. Derek Jaco­bi makes a life­like Stan­ley Bald­win. Sir Robert Van­sit­tart (Tom Wilkin­son) is the uneasy Under­sec­re­tary of State for For­eign Affairs, bal­anc­ing loy­al­ty to his gov­ern­ment with fear for his coun­try, say­ing of Churchill, “he demands total loy­al­ty,” and imply­ing that it’s worth it.

Fine scenes with a major gap

The open­ing scenes at Chartwell in 1934 play like William Manchester’s pro­logue to his sec­ond vol­ume of The Last Lion, pro­vid­ing a pen­e­trat­ing look at the house­hold down to “Mr. Accoun­tant Woods,” who on cue pro­nounces Winston’s finances a sham­bles. Winston’s hobbies—painting, brick­lay­ing, feed­ing his fish, watch­ing his pigs (the famous pig line is de rigueur)—are nice­ly done, though the fish­pond is not the one at Chartwell. Mary Churchill (now Lady Soames) looks more like a young Chelsea Clin­ton than the beau­ti­ful Mary. Ron­nie Bark­er is almost ide­al as Inch­es, the long-suf­fer­ing and devot­ed but­ler, but Bark­er is too Eng­lish; as his grand­son advis­es me (see com­ments), Inch­es was a Scot.

If this film were not so good, the gap in the sto­ry line would be unfor­giv­able: After 1936 and Baldwin’s retire­ment as Prime Min­is­ter, we skip ahead to the war and Churchill’s arrival at the Admi­ral­ty. How can a film enti­tled “The Gath­er­ing Storm” ignore the pre­mier­ship of Neville Cham­ber­lain and Munich?

Grant­ed, there are only nine­ty min­utes, and one can under­stand the omis­sion of, say, the Abdi­ca­tion Cri­sis. But with­out Munich the sto­ry falls short of its dra­mat­ic poten­tial. Sad­ly too, Churchill in Com­mons main­ly utters only banal sta­tis­tics about air­craft pro­duc­tion (too often to an emp­ty House—most times he packed the place). By devot­ing few­er min­utes to India and air­craft, they could have allowed Finney to tack­le that most famous pre­war ora­tion, after Munich: “I have watched this famous island descend­ing the stair­way which leads to a dark gulf.”

Final Thoughts

A minor flaw is the fail­ure to iden­ti­fy all the char­ac­ters. Mod­ern audi­ences would ben­e­fit from see­ing the cred­its before the film, the actors por­trayed along­side a few lines iden­ti­fy­ing the char­ac­ters they rep­re­sent. But there’s lit­tle else to crit­i­cize, and what’s miss­ing in 1937-39 is bal­anced by what’s includ­ed in 1934-36. Per­haps they’ve left room for a sequel?

The essence of this film is not so much the urgency of the hour, the naiveté of Britain’s lead­ers, their refusal to act “until self-preser­va­tion strikes its jar­ring gong,” Churchill’s defi­ant warn­ings when nobody would lis­ten (his true finest hour, many think)—and the rel­e­vance of Britain’s iner­tia to our grow­ing lethar­gy today, in the face of equal­ly per­ilous threats. All that is there—but pri­mar­i­ly this is a love sto­ry.

The inten­si­ty of Win­ston and Clementine’s devo­tion to one anoth­er per­me­ates the tale. From their spats over mon­ey to their rapid rec­on­cil­i­a­tions; from Winston’s cha­grin at Clemmie’s four-month sojourn in the South Seas (“If it weren’t for Mary I’d be awful­ly mis­er­able”), to his impromp­tu romp through his fish­pond upon her return; to his touch­ing trib­ute as he heads for the Admi­ral­ty (“thank you for lov­ing me”), the film exudes the emo­tion­al ties that all mar­riages should have, and theirs did. Churchill once described his mar­riage: “Here firm, though all be drift­ing.” For­tu­nate­ly for him, it real­ly was. Give BBC and HBO a tip of the hat.

3 thoughts on “Albert Finney in “The Gathering Storm”

  1. Dear Sir, re the Gath­er­ing Storm review….only one niggle..my mater­nal grand­fa­ther David Inch­es was a very proud Scot with a delight­ful Edin­burgh accent….Ronnie Bark­er cer­tain­ly con­veyed his strength of char­cac­ter and essen­tial twin­kle very well, but a shade too Eng­lish!
    Churchill I believe appre­ci­at­ed his many oth­er attrib­ut­es…
    If you are inter­est­ed in those I remember..let me know
    Best regards
    David Hendry

  2. Great review – I couldn’t agree more. Any thoughts on Into the Storm? For me, it wasn’t near­ly so good, and Bren­dan Glee­son made a very poor WSC.

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