THE GATHERING STORM (2002)

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The Gathering Storm

It's the mid-1930s and MP Winston Churchill (Albert Finney), once the most dynamic Member of Parliament, finds both his public and private life in turmoil. As an MP his unpopular stand against Indian independence and his unrelenting warnings of the rise of Nazism in Germany is seen as nothing less than -at best, the ranting of a once proud politician who is now nothing more than a spent force, and at worse, plain and simple warmongering.

Privately things are not much better; his family's fortune has been severely depleted by the stock market crash and he is desperately trying to hold on to his beloved home in the splendour of the Kent countryside; Chartwell, which he shares with his beloved wife, Clemmie (Vanessa Redgrave). But Churchill refuses to fade away during these 'wilderness years', continues to speak his mind and adamantly refuses to toe the party line, even when faced with expulsion by Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin (Derek Jacobi). Then, one of Winston's political allies, Desmond Morton (Jim Broadbent) introduces him to a concerned civil servant, Ralph Wigram (Linus Roache) who is privy to a top-secret report that Hitler is ordering owners of civilian aircraft to register with the Air Ministry.

Because the British Government is reluctant to go to war with Germany the reports are filed away. But Winston immediately recognizes that these reports, which are coming in on a regular basis, could be just what he needs to shame the Government into taking the German leader seriously. As more secret foreign-policy documents are smuggled to him, Winston reveals information about how the Nazi war effort is mounting in a number of controversial speeches before Parliament. The Prime Minister wants to know where Churchill is getting his information from and it's not long before the trail leads to Ralph Wigram.

Torn between his duty to his country and his duty to his office, Wigram, under intense pressure and also after receiving threats from people close to the Prime Minister, takes his own life. But by this time the British people are beginning to take note of Churchill's warnings and the more that his predictions about German aggression are proved correct then the more his popularity soars. When the Nazi's finally invade Poland and War is declared by Baldwin's successor, Neville Chamberlain, Churchill is made First Lord of the Admiralty.

The drama concludes with Churchill's triumphant return to office. Arriving at Admiralty Headquarters, he informs the guard that he is the new First Lord. The guard replies that the fleet has already been informed in a message that simply stated "Winston is back."

The Gathering Storm was a US/British co-production between HBO, the BBC and Ridley Scott's company, Scott Free. It was directed by Richard Loncraine, who had previously worked on Band Of Brothers, although he freely admits that he was reluctant to take it on at first. 'I assumed Churchill was someone that the English needed to fight Hitler, and indeed we did. But he had the reputation - if you don't research the man as I've done - of being just a bully really. You know, aggressive, rude, and cantankerous. Well he was all of those things. But he was also funny, charming, witty, erudite and complex. And depressive. He was an amazing collage of emotions and characters.' One of the key factors in making Loncraine change his mind was that Albert Finney was to play the leading role. 'I just think he becomes Churchill. And I can't imagine anyone trying to take on doing him again in my lifetime. I think it's a pretty definitive Churchill really'.

The screenplay was written by Hugh Whitemore, who has a long list of credits to his name including 84 Charing Cross Road (1987), All Creatures Great and Small (1974), Man at the Top (1973) and Elizabeth R (1971). He too was not sure about taking on the project at first, but only, he says because he felt daunted by the prospect of writing Churchill, one of the greatest orators of our time. But it was the sub-plots that really tempted him, the story about Ralph Wigram, who worked in the British Foreign Office, and the love story between Churchill and his wife, Clementine. What does become clear in this production is the devotion she showed to him throughout their relationship and how thankless it must have been on numerous occasions.

But when 'Clemmie' decides to go off on her own adventure, Winston becomes jealous and unreasonable. He accuses his wife of being selfish, which leads to a bitter argument. Hugh Whitmore used this dramatic scene to illustrate how vulnerable Churchill was. 'He needed so much the security of his relationship with Clemmie. And he was an incredibly vulnerable man. He would cry easily. He was emotional. And so one realizes the enormous size of his courage, because he wasn't naturally like that. And I found this very moving. And I didn't realize that until I started to read about him.'

The Gathering Storm, which aired in 2002 was a huge success on both sides of the Atlantic picking up a multitude of well-deserved awards along the way. Albert Finney gave a remarkable and memorable performance as Winston Churchill, and Vanessa Redgrave's Clemmie was both sensitive and quietly powerful. For British fans there was also the bonus of seeing Ronnie Barker come temporarily out of retirement to play Churchill's faithful butler, Inches. The Gathering Storm is indeed a fitting tribute to the man voted in a millennium poll as "The Greatest Briton of All Time."

Review: Laurence Marcus