The Gathering Storm, a depiction of Winston Churchill during his “Wilderness Years” of the mid-30s as he attempts to warn Britain about the impending danger of Germany, produced by HBO, and starring Albert Finney as Churchill is flawed masterpiece. What is fascinating is how it overcomes its massive flaw, which could have easily been avoided, through use of a stellar cast of recognizable faces, especially Finney, giving us one of the most accurate and authentic portrayals of an historical figure I’ve ever seen in a film.
WARNING! The flaw is in the Third Act so there will be MAJOR SPOILERS HERE!
The genius of the movie's portrayal of Winston can be summed up in the first ten minutes, by the way. A car arrives at a place of the Battle of Blenheim and Winston, darkly dressed in suit and hat with a cigar in his mouth, steps out of the car to swelling music, giving us. Walks up to a hill and imagines of his ancestor, the Duke of Marlborough, on horseback leading the British army amidst all the battle’s horrors to the stirring strings of "Rule, Britannia”. As cannon balls explode around him, Marlborough turns his head to Winston and they make —and Winston wakes up nude at his Chartwell home in 1934 and waddles to his restroom (still nude) to take a pee reciting a speech about why giving India its independence would "mark the downfall of the British Empire."
And we get a glimpse of his bare buttocks as he walks over to the restroom. It's not the prettiest sight. Winston Churchill is at the nadir of his political career. His position on his party’s India policy has made him politically isolated, his finances are in trouble due to the loss of much of his wealth in the Stock Market Crash of 1929, his relationship with his older children is strained and his wife Clemmie seems to be barely keeping the family together, and he suffers commonly from what he and his wife call his “black dog days”. His primary joy seems to his current book about the aforementioned Duke of Marlborough that he dreamed about. And painting watercolors.
Winston is in this state when Desmond Morton, a civil servant at the Foreign Office, arrives at Chartwell with information on Germany’s rearmament. Winston, equipped with this information begins making speeches to Parliament on the issue. Morton also brings in a young man working at the Foreign Office with access to much better information about Nazi Germany than him named Ralph Wigram. Wigram, who despises the Nazi ideology due to having a son with cerebral palsy, reluctantly agrees to break the law by “stealing classified documents and giving them to someone who has no right to use them.”
The second act takes the following course; Clemmie soon departs on a safari leaving Winston to run the house alone. A task to which he is not as well-suited, struggling to deal with family issues and problems with a landscaping project at Chartwell.
Winston uses the information from Wigram well, building opposition to the appeasement policy despite attempts by Stanley Baldwin to undermine him by getting people in his constituency to attack him.
Wigram, however, who in one scene admits to Winston that he is a “worrier” who is concerned about his job and his family, which is dependent upon his job, slowly begins to despair as he sees the Nazi’s building continuing unabated and feeling stress about the possibility of losing his job over what the help he is giving to Winston (which would trouble for his family). He begins to have doubts about what they are doing and whether or not it will work at all. Th stress of it all is clearly building upon him.
Which leads us to the films biggest flaw. He cracks and dies suddenly on New Year’s Eve and it is heavily implied to be a suicide. The scene and the following two at the graveyard where Churchill comforts Wigram’s widow Ava and the scene at Churchill’s house between Winston and Clemmie talking about the future are well-done and the movie could’ve stopped there, ending the movie on an ominous note.But instead we skip ahead 5 years rather abruptly to September of 1939 when Neville Chamberlain is announcing the beginning of the war against Germany and Winston Churchill is appointed First Lord of the Admiralty. This creates quite a drag despite giving us a rousing coda where Churchill arrives at the Admiralty.
In the opening minutes the movie gives us the stout and heroic Churchill we all know from childhood and promptly tosses it in the rubbish bin by showing us this rather pathetic and pudgy man, who in his words is “witnessing my own demise”. The rest of the movie takes us on a slow course of subtly showing Winston steadily gain the confidence and spirit needed to be the savior of Britain —5 years before the advent of Second World War. A sort of “superhero origin story”, if you will with the Wigrams seeming to serve as a sort-of stand-in for the British people he would later inspire.
This also allows us to feel like we know Winston Churchill better. We see his bullying of his servants but also his compassion. We watch him struggle with despair and climb out of it (albeit subtly). And since much of the movie is of him at home it seems as if we are living at Chartwell with him. By seeing him at his home during one of the worst times of his life we feel like know him better. The result is that by the end I was kind of sad to see it end, I wanted to spend more time with Winston.
When a biopic makes you feel like you have actually spent time with him and you actually want to spend more time with him, even if it is more out of perverse fascination as in Downfall, and if it is at least fairly accurate, then it has accomplished the important task of putting the person onto the screen.
And the cast supporting Finney is amazing. I did not mention them in the story summary because it would’ve dragged the story with parenthesis in every other sentence so here is a list of persons you might recognize (aside from Albert Finney): Vanessa Redgrave (Guinevere in Camelot and lots of other movies) as Clemmie Churchill, Jim Broadbent (Harold Zidler in Moulin Rouge!, Slughorn in Harry Potter) as Desmond Morton, Linus Roache (Thomas Wayne in Batman Begins) as Ralph Wigram, Lena Headey (Cersei Lannister in Game of Thrones) as Ralph’s wife Ava, Derek Jacobi (Henry V, Hamlet, Gladiator, and the upcoming Cinderella) as PM Stanley Baldwin, Tom Wilkinson (Ben Franklin in John Adams) as Sir Robert Vansittart, Tom Hiddleston (Loki in Avengers) as Winston’s son Randolph, Hugh Bonneville (Lord Grantham in Downton Abbey) as Baldwin’s lackey Ivo Pettifer, and Gottfried John (General Ourumov in Goldeneye) as a visiting German official. And there are others I’ve probably neglected but those are the ones I’ve recognized from other movies.
So with a cast like that you can imagine the result: Great performances all around. This is a movie where there is not a badly written character.
What Doesn’t Work and How it Could Have Been Fixed
The problem is in the Third Act. Despite attempts to build up Ralph’s despair the death feels abrupt. Now, his death really did happen on January 31, 1935 and, despite being listed as pulmonary hemorrhage, it is widely believed to have been a suicide.
Perhaps a bit more time could have helped. The review at the winstonchurchill.org expressed dismay that Churchill’s “Munich” speech was not in the movie. The movie was only 90 minutes and primarily covers only 1934 to 1935 so maybe expanding it to 110 or 120 might or making it a 2-part, 4-hour miniseries have helped it. Perhaps doing this, maybe as a 120+ minute movie or as a 4-hour mini-series, would have allowed them to move Wigram’s suicide to after the capitulation at Munich. Film adaptations are allowed to make changes for the benefit of story. Or they could keep it accurate and keep Ralph’s death by putting it in 1935 would’ve made a great point to end Part 1. Or covering all the period between 1935 and 1939. adaptations are allowed to make changes for the benefit of story.
Or, finally, they could have cut the last 5 minutes out altogether. Shorter movie, yes. But the shot of Winston Churchill looking out from Chartwell into the night sky after Ralph’s death is a great one and, as I said above, would have made a great moment to end the series. A bit too abrupt, maybe, and it would’ve cut the rousing scene where Winston arrives at the Admiralty to swelling music we heard at the beginning but it would’ve helped.
But, on the whole, the film is indeed a masterpiece, albeit a flawed one, and worth a watch. The performances are excellent and Finney is so good that I have actually had trouble watching other portrayals of Winston Churchill because they do come even close to what Finney accomplishes in The Gathering Storm.
Especially the sequel, Into the Storm, with Brendan Gleeson as Winston Churchill. Which I had to quit watching out of a disinterest due to its episodic script (Breitbart.com compared it to a “Greatest Hits of World War 2”) and uninteresting portrayals of Franklin D. Roosevelt and Joseph Stalin.
So, I say watch it. 4 out of 5 stars.