Finest Hour 115, Summer 2002
By Richard M. Langworth
“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. Script by Hugh Whitemore, directed by Richard Loncraine. 90 minutes. We have eight brand new reviewer’s videotapes (USA format), $40 postpaid in USA, elsewhere enquire; make payable to The Churchill Center.
Churchill films seldom engender unanimity among reviewers, but everyone in the room watching the preview, by kind invitation of the British Consul in Boston, had the same reaction: astonishment at just how good this film is. Even in a cynical and antiheroic age, filmmakers still can recreate what Lady Soames calls “The Saga” without reducing her father to a flawed burlesque or a godlike caricature. With the exception of one huge gap in the story line, “The Gathering Storm” is a masterpiece.
Unexpectedly in the male-dominated world of the 1930s, but perhaps intentionally in 2002, the greatest supporting roles are female. Clementine Churchill is one of these. Badly misplayed by Sean Phillips in the “Wilderness Years” documentary two decades ago (FH 38), Clemmie gets justice at the hands of Vanessa Redgrave.
Redgrave not only looks the part—Winston Churchill, who should know, says 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 Diana Duff Cooper, “and as 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.” (FH 83:13).
Equally compelling is Ava (Lena Headey), the beautiful wife of Ralph Wigram (Linus Roache) a Foreign Office official who, as Martin Gilbert revealed in the official biography, risked his career to bring Churchill secret documents on Germany’s rearmament. Devotedly Ava bears her husband’s strain, her deep concern for a son suffering from cerebral palsy, and the worst that politics can throw at her.
Angered by Wigram’s aid to Churchill, a government toady named Pettifer (in life Walter Runciman, President of the Board of Trade) visits Ava with a threat: if Ralph doesn’t stop helping Churchill he will be transferred abroad, leaving Ava and the boy alone in London. She promptly 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 death from polio in 1936 she wrote to WSC: “He adored you so & always said you were the greatest Englishman alive.” In 1941 she married John Anderson, later Viscount Waverly, Home Secretary and later Chancellor of the Exchequer in Churchill’s wartime government, for whom the Anderson Shelter was named. Churchill was devoted to Ava, and when Anderson died in 1958, Martin Gilbert reports, Sir Winston telephoned her from Chartwell: “After commiserating with her on Lord Waverly’s death he was silent for a while, then said to her with what sounded like tears in his voice, ‘For Ralph Wigram grieve.’”
Albert Finney, who plays Winston, is ten or fifteen years too old and looks more like WSC’s late 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 Robert Hardy. He’s no Hardy, but Finney is all right. Again Whitemore’s script comes through: here and there is a snatch of words Churchill spoke in different contexts (e.g., a 1939 broadcast, 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 perhaps so 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 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.
The opening scenes at Chartwell in 1934 play like Manchester’s prologue to his second volume of The Last Lion, providing a penetrating look at the household down to “Mr. Accountant Woods,” who 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 looks more like Chelsea Clinton than the beautiful Mary, but Ronnie Barker has come out of retirement to make an ideal Inches, the long-suffering, devoted butler.
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 just ninety minutes, so it’s fair to forego, 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. 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.”
A minor flaw is the failure to identify the characters. Modern audiences would benefit from seeing the credits before the film, the actors portrayed alongside a few lines defining the characters they represent. But there’s little else to criticize, and what’s missing from 1937-39 is balanced by what’s included from 1934-36. Have they left room for a sequel?
The essence of this film is not so much the urgency of the hour, the naivete 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 threats more perilous than we seem to realize. 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 escape to the South Seas (“If it weren’t for Mary I’d be awfully miserable”) to his impromptu romp through the fishpond upon her return; to his touching tribute as he returns to the Admiralty (“thank you for loving me”), the film exudes the powerful ties that all marriages should have, and theirs did. Churchill once described his marriage: “Here firm, though all be crumbling.” Fortunately for him, it really was. Give BBC and HBO a tip of the hat.