HBO // 2009 // 98 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge Clark Douglas // December 16th, 2009
A relentless leader is the greatest weapon of war.
Full Disclosure: I have not seen the 2002 HBO film The Gathering Storm, which took an in-depth look at the life of Winston Churchill during the pre-WWII era. The film won a great deal of acclaim, including both an Emmy and Golden Globe for actor Albert Finney's portrayal of Churchill. The film was initially supposed to be the first part of a three-part film series chronicling different periods in Churchill's life, but Finney chose not to return for a second installment. Seven years later, we have Into the Storm, with a brand-new Churchill (Brendan Gleeson, In Bruges) and a mostly new supporting cast (the likes of Vanessa Redgrave, Jim Broadbent, Derek Jacobi, and Tom Wilkinson have been traded for...um...Janet McTeer, Len Cariou, and Robert Pugh).
While Into the Storm is a handsome and thoroughly professional production, more often than not it feels like a motion picture made for history junkies rather than general audiences. If you're not up to snuff on your WWII history, you may find yourself getting a bit lost during the film, as writer Hugh Whitemore (a veteran scribe well-versed in historical dramas and period films) freely assumes an awful lot of knowledge on the part of the viewer. The film devotes most of its time to offering powerful portrayals of some of the big moments for Churchill between 1940 and 1945, but doesn't spend a whole lot of time building up to those moments or effectively explaining why they were so important.
That being said, if you do have a pretty solid grasp of the WWII timeline, you may find yourself thoroughly immersed in the experience. Gleeson is an excellent Churchill, portraying the man as a cantankerous charmer who happened to be in the right place at the right time in history. Into the Storm paints Churchill as a man with a lot of weaknesses, but suggests he was ideally equipped to handle the war. Though it's a slightly dark thought, it suggests that Churchill was a man who thrived when faced with conflict and turmoil. One is tempted to call Gleeson's performance, "a revelation," but that wouldn't really be honest. Gleeson is a generally superb actor, and I can't ever recall seeing him in a role he wasn't fully equipped to handle.
It might be a somewhat challenging part to play, but what portly British actor wouldn't want to sink their teeth into a role like this? Winston Churchill delivered some of the most famous speeches of the 20th Century during his time in office, and this film tries to include as many of them as it can possibly justify (and maybe a couple more). There are plenty of extended passages in which Gleeson gets to bellow Churchill's inspirational rhetoric, and they're so convincing and effective that the predictably sweeping music from Howard Goodall feels absolutely justified.
McTeer is excellent as Clementine Churchill, whose quiet tolerance plays touchingly against Gleeson's stubborn bullishness. She is a woman who brings out the best in her husband, though he occasionally grows irritable with what he perceives to be her, "liberal tendencies." She does not often assert herself, but when she does, it most assuredly gets Mr. Churchill's attention. Consider the moment in which Churchill berates a servant for misplacing tubes of paint, followed by a moment in which Clemmie sternly informs her husband that he will not be permitted to treat the servants as lesser human beings. Their scenes together are among the best in the film, as they're welcome moments of humanity in a film that often feels a bit much like a historical re-enactment.
The transfer is superb, which is unsurprising considering that HBO has a tendency to provide some of the best standard-def transfers around. Also unsurprising is the very dour color palette, dominated by oh-so-English shades of gray at almost every turn. Detail is solid throughout, blacks are reasonably deep, and the image is generally well-defined throughout. Audio is also excellent, as Goodall's score demonstrates considerable strength throughout. Dialogue is clean and sharp; sound design is superb when the filmmakers actually attempt to create an immersive environment. Extras include a standard-issue EPK-style making-of featurette and a somewhat dry commentary with producer Frank Doelger and writer Hugh Whitemore.
Though viewers without at least a mild passion for history may grow a bit bored, most will find Into the Storm an engaging experience. It's worth a look.
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Scales of Justice
* 1.78:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (French)
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (Spanish)
Running Time: 98 Minutes
Release Year: 2009
MPAA Rating: Not Rated