May 19, 2009

© 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, 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 to “The Gathering Storm”: astonishment at just how good it was. Even in a cynical and anti-hero age, filmmakers still can recreate what Lady Soames calls “The Saga” without reducing the Churchill 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 two 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 here at the hands of Vanessa Redgrave.

Redgrave not only looks the part–Winston Churchill, who should know, tells 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 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).

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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, their deep concern for their young, autistic son, and the worst that politics can throw at her.

Angered by Wigram’s aid to Churchill, a government toady named Pettifer (in fact it was 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 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 loved Ava all his life. When Anderson died in 1958, Gilbert reports, Churchill 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 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 (e.g., a 1939 broadcast to America, 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 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 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 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 looks more like a young Chelsea Clinton than the beautiful Mary, but Ronnie Barker is ideal as Inches, the long-suffering and 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 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.”

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 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 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 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 crumbling.” Fortunately for him, it really was. Give BBC and HBO a tip of the hat.

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