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In the 1930s, Winston Churchill was out of government, sitting as a backbench MP. His was a lonely voice warning about German rearmament and the coming of a second major war on the Continent. He lost a great deal of money in the Wall Street crash and now writes - a biography of his ancestor the Duke of Marlborough, a newspaper column - and it's his only means of support. He has a close-knit group of supporter not the least of whom is his wife Clemmie, who he loves very dearly. As he continues to press his concerns about Hitler, he is cast as a warmonger and frequently shouted down in Parliament by members on both sides of the aisle. With reliable information from a Foreign Office civil servant who feels the government is not accurately reporting on rearmament, he provides accurate figures to Parliament and the tide begins to turn. With the onset of World War II in September 1939, Churchill returns to government as First Lord of Admiralty. Written by
Winston Churchill's life story is a hell of a tale: pampered youth, war and incarceration in Africa, enduring romance with his wife, catastrophic early political years, service in WW1, abandon in the 20s, resurgence and finest hour during WW2, then decline. Until I stumbled upon this particular film, I wondered why no biography of his had inspired a leading filmmaker, much like T.E. Lawrence's Seven Pillar's of Wisdom fired up the imagination of a generation, including one Sir David Lean, leading to one of the best films of all time.
There are two great challenges in putting Churchill to film: 1) Assuming you cannot afford a half-century-spanning narrative in miniseries format, which part of his life do you focus on? 2) Who could possibly play the part without it becoming a joke?
Every once in a while, when you least expect it, you stumble into something amazing. Pure, blind luck. So I ran into this made-for-TV movie on a flight - coincidentally - mere weeks after reading a Churchill bio.
The Gathering Storm, produced by Ridley Scott and directed by Richard Loncraine (the Ian McKellen Richard III) has some serious pedigree behind the camera. The playful script covers Churchill's wilderness years during Hitler's rise to power in Germany. It is rich with context but never forgets the casual viewer, focusing primarily on the electric dynamic between Winston and wide/confidant Clemmie.
In calling not for one strong central part but two - a wise move on paper - the film compounds the challenge expressed in point 2, but casting turns out to be a real coup: Albert Finney was always the man, but he simply IS Churchill, a perfect blend of imitation and incarnation (and if you want to know what happens when you get the blend wrong, look no further than the follow-up, Into The Storm). Thank god Vanessa Redgrave more than holds her own opposite him. The rest of the cast is a who's-who of venerable and up-and-coming British thesps, from Jim Broadbent, Derek Jacobi and Tom Wilkinson to Tom Hiddleston and Lena Heady, who are hopefully due great things in the future.
It is a shame that part 2 fell slightly short, and failed to bring back Finney and Redgrave, but still, as Churchill adaptations go, this is probably as good all you'll get. I truly doubt anyone could top this.
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