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Site created 12/15/97.

review added: 2/13/03

The Gathering Storm
200? (2003) - Scott Free/BBC Films/HBO (HBO)

review by Bill Hunt, editor of The Digital Bits

Enhanced for 16x9 TVs

The Gathering Storm Film Rating: A-

Disc Ratings (Video/Audio/Extras): B-/C-/D

Specs and Features

96 mins, NR, letterboxed widescreen (1.78:1), 16x9 enhanced, single-sided, single-layered, Snapper case packaging, audio commentary (with director Richard Loncraine and producer Frank Doelger), film-themed menu screens, scene access (16 chapters), languages: English, French and Spanish (DD 2.0), subtitles: English, French and Spanish, Closed Captioned

"Winston is back, hhhmmm? And so he bloody well is!"

In the years between the first and second World Wars, Winston Churchill's political career in Britain was waning. Once a highly-respected voice of reason in Parliament and the first Lord of the Admiralty, by the mid-1930s, Churchill was out of power and considered out of touch with the political realities of the day. Having grown bone-weary of war, Britain was demilitarizing itself at the very same time Nazi Germany was aggressively re-arming. Few in the British government saw the danger in these disturbing trends at the time, and no one with a voice was willing to sound the alarm. No one, that is, save Churchill.

The Gathering Storm is not a film about Churchill's stalwart leadership of Britain during World War II. Rather, it's an intensely personal look at the man himself, and the years of his life leading up to that critical moment in history. The Winston Churchill depicted here is a sad, sacred curmudgeon of a man, confronting his own obsolescence and the very winter of his years. This is the story of Churchill's desperate struggle to find a last measure of relevance... and the fortuitous events by which he became exactly the man to lead his people through their darkest hour.

What makes this film so good, and such a delight to watch, is the absolutely astonishing performance by Albert Finney. Without using any prosthetics whatsoever, Finney manages to slip completely into the persona of Churchill, filling the character with inspired vigor. This is a blustering tiger of a man, who is beset by very human frailties despite the strength of his constitution. Finney imbues the man with an almost child-like vulnerability. The film starts with a dream Churchill has one night... and the next time we see him - the first time in reality - he's a bloated and aged hulk of a man, walking bare-assed into the bathroom, composing a speech even as he takes his morning piss. The honesty of this portrayal is startling and makes the film that much more effective. Finney recently won an Emmy for this performance (the film took three in all) and the honor is justly deserved.

Equally good here are the various supporting players, including Vanessa Redgrave as Churchill's wife Clemmie, Linus Roache as a British Intelligence officer who heroically (and quite illegally) supplies Churchill with secret data on German armament efforts, Derek Jacobi as then Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin and the likes of Jim Broadbent and Tom Wilkinson as government officials who support and oppose Churchill. Most of those latter roles are quite minor, and the fact that such high-caliber actors were willing to take them on speaks volume about the quality of this production.

The video presentation on this DVD from HBO is fair, but only just. The disc is presented in anamorphic widescreen, which is welcome indeed. There's moderate grain throughout the image, and the video looks a little bit too soft overall. Color is shifted toward warmer hues, which is intentional, and there's light edging visible. But contrast is good and the picture is generally adequate. This isn't first-rate video, but it serves the film well enough.

Unfortunately, the Dolby Digital 2.0 Surround audio isn't up to par. The loudest passages become a bit distorted, while dialogue in the quietest moments can be difficult to discern. Most of the time, this isn't a problem. But this is a film where British accents play an obviously significant role, and Churchill's speech patterns, in particular, are often full of muttering and jumbles lines. Again, this isn't usually an issue, but there are a few times when the optional English subtitles come in handy.

The sole extra on this DVD is a feature-length audio commentary track with director Richard Loncraine and producer Frank Doelger. The pace and tone of their commentary is somewhat dry and reserved. But once they get going, they have a lot of fascinating things to say about the production effort, Finney's work and Churchill the man. The track is well worth a listen if you like the film even half as much as I do.

My only problem with The Gathering Storm is that it isn't nearly long enough! I was so fascinated by this story and these characters, that I really wanted to see the film carry on into wartime - the part of Churchill's life we're all most familiar with. During the commentary, the director hints at the fact that they're going to be doing another film on Churchill, which I sincerely hope is a sequel to this story. In any case, The Gathering Storm is a marvellous character piece, and an absolute achievement in the career of Albert Finney. It's well worth a spin on DVD.

Bill Hunt
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