By Tom Shales
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, May 30, 2009
The thrill of history, the agony of defeat: "Into the Storm," a new HBO-BBC co-production about Winston Churchill's heroic leadership during World War II, also looks at what has long been a puzzling footnote to the story -- the fact that in 1945, the war over and England saved, a seemingly ungrateful nation rushed to the polls and voted Churchill out of office.
He was prime minister no more -- but would be again, in the early 1950s when, his legend having grown in the postwar period, he was voted back in. The film, however, is much more than a procession of facts and battles; it is a richly emotional story about an astonishing and complicated man and his wife, Clemmie, who excused a great deal of beastly behavior by her husband on the grounds that his country needed him for it to survive.
Many who have accomplished infinitely less have behaved far, far beastlier.
Premiering tomorrow night on HBO, the film is a sequel to one of the cable channel's most glowing productions of recent years, 2002's "The Gathering Storm," about Churchill and England at the brink of the war. Memorably, Albert Finney added to an impressive collection of great performances with a portrayal of Churchill that was all inspiration, no caricature. In the new film, Irish-born Brendan Gleeson has the unenviable task of following in Finney's footsteps, and he plays Churchill almost as powerfully as Finney did.
And Janet McTeer is a pillar of strength and resolve as Clemmie, who -- in scenes that frame flashbacks to the war -- waits with her husband in a French coastal town for all the election returns to come in. It took 30 days for the results to become official, giving the Churchill in the movie, and presumably the Churchill in real life, ample opportunity to look back, assess and reassess, and wonder if indeed his usefulness might have ended.
Written by Hugh Whitemore, who did "The Gathering Storm," and directed by Thaddeus O'Sullivan, the movie is an absolute must for amateur and professional historians alike; its re-creations of major and minor moments from an earth-shaking era are compellingly entertaining. It's a production both important and charming, a chance to see Churchill portrayed as legendary and yet believably, endearingly human.
"Into the Storm" opens in July 1945 with shots of Churchill's large head bobbing about like an unlikely cabbage in the waters off Hendaye, France. Sir Winston is off in a kind of transitory self-exile that, unbeknownst to him, will turn into a very long sabbatical, even though he had performed one of the most difficult jobs on the planet with great skill and singular style.
Throughout the movie -- which contains spectacular scenes of the war and its aftermath -- we are kept teetering between Churchill's anxious vigil in France and episodes from the fighting, beginning with a scene in Buckingham Palace in which Churchill's merits and supposed liabilities as a leader are debated. He's described as "unreliable" and "impulsive," among other things, but his virtues win out in the end, and they're easily formidable enough to excuse his bursts of temper and such unhappy incidents as berating a servant for having misplaced a few little tubes of paint.
It was Clemmie, we are told, who got Churchill to take up painting in the first place, partly as therapy and a respite from the storm -- a scheme somewhat undone by Churchill's occasional bombast and his intolerance of fallibility in others.
He was eccentric in a way that Britons not only tolerate but also often seem to view as a sign of distinction -- demanding an hour of "uninterrupted sleep" followed by a long hot bath every afternoon, no matter what "Herr Hitler" might be up to at the moment. When he felt like being brilliant and dictating a speech he'd later read on the radio, it was up to a secretary to follow him from room to room if necessary, scribbling down words that seemed to become almost instantly immortal.
While bombs fell on England, and others in the government and the wartime bureaucracy raced down flights of stairs to underground shelters, Churchill was by his own orders ushered up to the roof -- the most dangerous place for him to be but the one that he said gave him the best vantage point.
It is sobering to be reminded how close England came to obliteration, how capriciously history might have turned another way, how hard Churchill had to fight -- at least at first -- to convince some of his compatriots of the awful threat that Hitler represented. But there are lighter moments as well: Churchill in the bathtub chatting away with Franklin Roosevelt (Len Cariou), who sits nearby, then getting out of the tub and accidentally dropping the huge towel that had covered him.
Gleeson has splendid moments when, head bowed and lower lip jutting out, you may for a split-second think you really are looking at the private Churchill in all his carefully concealed vulnerability. "Into the Storm" brings to life an epic chapter and does it in a way that quickly earns the total investment of one's attention, as well as an enthralled sort of awe.
Into the Storm (1 hour 45 minutes) debuts tomorrow night at 9 on HBO.