When people talk about wanting more “quality” television, they usually mean programming like The Gathering Storm. It has all the elements of “quality tv” as established by, say, PBS’s Masterpiece Theater, including respectable (even venerable) stars and topics fit for high school history or civics class. However, despite being thoughtfully constructed and acted, this is not a movie for thinkers, which, in its way, may also be an element of “quality tv.”
Although the film shares its name with Winston Churchill’s memoirs and a 1974 British made-for-TV movie based on them, this version is no epic. Anyone who has heard about the 2002 The Gathering Storm at all has likely heard it is about Winston Churchill “the man” (here played by Albert Finney) and his relationship with his wife Clementine (Vanessa Redgrave, and both she and Finney have received rightful praise for their performances). Though the film leans occasionally toward being a heroic biopic (we know who is good or who is evil, who knows of what he speaks and who is ignorant), it also provides humanizing ephemera about Churchill, elaborating somewhat on the fairly well known fact that he was a moody depressive.
Displaying the personal lives of larger-than-life historical figures runs the risk of overly debasing them through too much disclosure. But while we see Finney’s Churchillian posterior as he prepares to bathe, this is not an investigation of corporal desires. This is History, framed artfully. The scene in which we see Churchill bathing is a emblem of his renewal: he removes his clothes, is cleansed, is contemplative, and begins to resurrect his career, and, according to this narrative, his love affair with Clementine. It’s as if he were going through a quiet but crucial period of rebirth before emerging as the pink-faced idol we know from photos and newsreels. (I do wonder, if someone makes a movie about Margaret Thatcher or Golda Meir’s late years, how much of her aging female body we would see.)
The point here is that Churchill is “human,” that he has faults. That is, we not only see him naked, but also broke, depressed, forsaken by his wife, and mocked by his peers. The period covered by The Gathering Storm shows Churchill after his infamy in British political circles, but before international fame. In the scenes in Parliament, for example, he is clearly well known, but considered by some to be a reactionary, outdated warmonger. Fortunately for Churchill, he proves to be correct about Germany.
The simplicity with which this film’s Parliament addresses war is troublesome. Basically, two points of view are presented: that of Churchill, who contends that Germany is arming for war and preparing a campaign of genocide; and that of most of everyone else, supporting isolationism in the name of continued trade revenue from continental Europe. There is no room here for characters who might have other or more complex analyses. This is tricky for viewers with hindsight regarding the Holocaust. The film positions those viewers to agree with Churchill, which means supporting more war. Who could possibly argue that stopping the Nazis might require caveats? I won’t do it.
The one character who voices concern about personal responsibility for death and destruction is a young family man and mid-level bureaucrat in the foreign office, Ralph Wilgram (Linus Roache, who makes the most of this small role). This character suggests how compelling Churchill was, in that he convinces the rule-abiding Wilgram to jeopardize his career, reputation, and family life to provide Churchill with confidential government documents. Churchill, according to this narrative, is a solitary man by reputation only. In addition to having servants and assistants, not to mention Clementine, to manage his daily life, he also has cadres of “little people,” acolytes like Wilgram who, depending on whom you ask, either are mentored by Winston or are used by him.
What The Gathering Storm does not do is consider the complexities of war and politics. (This might be considered strange, given that Churchill thought a lot about such things.) Though it’s focused on that moment when England was on the brink of entry into World War II, the film is surprisingly inert, presenting vignettes of a superficially quiet nation while hinting heavily that just beyond the calm is quite a mess, both for England and Churchill.
It is in this context that the film addresses “the man’s” chronic melancholia, which he poetically calls his “black dog.” Less poetically but more accurately, The Gathering Storm also shows that Churchill endured a combination of egoism and depression that sucked the life out of people around him. The film shows him to be irritable and often cold to his family members, friends, and staff, while still expecting devotion, immediate attention, forgiveness, and compassion from them in return. Churchill was politically brilliant and an asshole — but we already knew that. What we didn’t know before, and what The Gathering Storm offers, is insight in to the day-to-day details of life with him.