A love story and a tale of political redemption frame two engaging performances by Albert Finney and Vanessa Redgrave in “The Gathering Storm,” a detailed look at Winston Churchill’s determined political revival in the years prior to World War II. The hand of the BBC lays heavy on this talky production that’s more “Masterpiece Theater” than HBO’s usual edgy fare, as one character after another enters Churchill’s world with words of either encouragement or caution. Espionage, seemingly a favorite subject of exec producers Ridley and Tony Scott, is only a peripheral part of “Storm,” mainly the manner in which covert information is passed along, yet it provides a sturdy vehicle for the wondrous Linus Roache as Foreign Office exec Ralph Wigram, who finds himself in a bit of a pickle despite his anti-Hitler stance.
Physically, Finney makes for a great Churchill, and the mannerisms, not to mention the deep, authoritative tone in his voice, all suggest tremendous character study on Finney’s part. Hugh Whitemore’s script captures Britain’s future prime minister as he is reconstructing himself from has-been blowhard concerned with Gandhi to the man who foresaw the Nazi threat. Churchill is seen formulating speeches, working on his cadence, writing articles and editing himself extensively, and sticking to his guns after taking unpopular stances; he does these tasks anywhere, from the bathtub to bars to the grounds around his mansion where he paints landscapes.
“Gathering” assiduously tiptoes through Brit history of the mid-1930s without mentioning trouble among the royals or Neville Chamberlain’s attempts to talk Hitler out of storming Czechoslovakia or Poland. Churchill’s vision of preparedness was translated as war-mongering, and indeed, nothing brings him greater political joy than the message, delivered at pic’s end, “Winston is back!” Pic grants Churchill considerable humanity: His love for England, shot beautifully by Peter Hannan, and wife Clemmie (played beguilingly by Redgrave) are the forces that guide him, not the desire to plant the Union Jack in foreign territories.
Telepic covers the years 1934-39, and at the outset, Churchill is a staunch yet outmoded imperialist. “England is lost in a pacifist dream,” he says early on, depressed by his lack of power, near-bankruptcy and, on the political front, the rising support for Adolf Hitler. Churchill writes opinion pieces for various newspapers and makes political speeches that initially are heckled by the small groups in attendance. As time passes, his speeches are heard by an increasingly larger and accepting audience.
The shift of concern to Hitler’s growing power and the mobilization of workers gains Churchill the support and friendship of Wigram, who uses his Foreign Office access to get his hands on secret information. Wigram’s involvement stems from his own plight — Churchill has convinced him, quite rightly, that Hitler’s racial cleansing would mean no life for Wigram’s disabled 4-year-old son (Laurie Flexman). Eventually, the spy life is too difficult for this mild-mannered do-gooder to handle. His domestic bliss is threatened when Clemmie takes off for an “adventure,” leaving Churchill to re-establish himself on yet another front, the home.
Redgrave gives Finney a run for his money on the acting front. She is consistently dignified, and her two mood shifts — one’s to anger, the other to reflection — are startlingly affecting. Redgrave inhabits a character removed from the history books and a thoroughly believable one at that; she is the embodiment of a support system that gets pushed to the hilt one time too many yet remains capable of recovery. When she returns from her trip and shares in her husband’s triumph, her expression of joy is bountiful and all-giving, a distinct contrast to the cautious looks of love she proffers early in the film.
Key supporting players — Jim Broadbent, Tom Wilkinson, Derek Jacobi and Tom Hiddleston — provide an aristocratic air around Churchill, though none of the parts beyond Wigram is particularly meaty. Celia Imrie, as his assistant Mrs. P, and Ronnie Barker, who as David Inches commands the 18 staff members, take their roles of subservience and imbue them with a subtle, welcome touch of propriety.
Richard Loncraine directs “Gathering Storm” almost as a dance, steadily building the story, the interplay between Churchill and all who enter his world. “Storm” ends up playing gracefully due to his efforts, heavy as it is on historical data. Ending, for some, may appear too crass and feel-good, but it seems inevitable that “Storm” would end with something of a victory.
Hannan’s photography captures the exquisite English countryside and the vastness of Churchill’s country estate Chartwell, where much of the pic was shot. It supplies an intriguing dividing line between Churchill, who enjoyed a regal lifestyle, and the frugally minded Clemmie, who was never fond of the house. Conversely, shots in London come at the viewer from a wide range of angles, many of them used to enhance the compact conditions people in which lived and worked.
Howard Goodall’s score is huge, like the sort of red wine one would drink with wild boar, and in places it threatens the pic’s somber tones. Moments in which the filmmakers have chosen to go with a backdrop of nothing but silence are quite moving.