May 29, 2009 / 1:40 AM / 11 years ago

HBO movie depicts Churchill's personal battles

Irish actor Gleeson Brendan addresses a news conference in Berlin February 7, 2004. REUTERS/Fabrizio Bensch

LOS ANGELES (Hollywood Reporter) - HBO Films’ “Into the Storm” succeeds on several levels, but chief among them is the performance of Brendan Gleeson as Winston Churchill.

Just as the prime minister carried Britain through the Second World War, it’s Gleeson who shoulders the film and makes it grander and more compelling than a typical telefilm. A sequel of sorts to 2002’s “The Gathering Storm,” the new film traces Churchill’s emotional journey from 1940-45 and the toll the war took on his marriage, health and political career.

The telefilm opens in 1945 with Churchill and his wife, Clemmie (Janet McTeer), vacationing in France after the war, where Churchill awaits the results of the general election. The story then skips back five years to his appointment as prime minister amid the growing war with the Nazis. But rather than unfold as one lengthy flashback, the script from Hugh Whitemore skips through time like a stone on water, cutting between Churchill’s governance during the war and his troubled life in the aftermath. It’s a smart structural choice that emphasizes the story’s focus on Churchill as man, not myth, and director Thaddeus O’Sullivan opts for a series of strong moments instead of lengthier scenes typical of historical dramas.

As the war progresses, “Storm” turns more to Churchill’s relationship with Clemmie, allowing their struggling relationship to mirror the ebb and flow of the battle effort. Although McTeer does a fine job in her role, she can’t keep up with Gleeson, who throws himself into the character and completely owns him, from the nonstop cigars to the famous cadence of his speeches. Gleeson is believably tough but doesn’t make Churchill a warmonger or bully; if anything, he’s burdened by the thought of the boys he has sent to die. The moment where he awards the Victoria Cross to a wounded soldier is moving in the way Gleeson communicates Churchill’s humility in the presence of a young hero.

The film also has an edge over other U.S. fare by attempting to touch on the breadth of the war from the British perspective instead of the compressed time frame that runs from D-Day to V-E Day. “Storm” includes an angle on the Normandy invasion not often depicted on film: Churchill back in England, watching news footage, hoping things go well. For an era that’s been overdone on film, “Storm” is noteworthy for making an old story feel fresh.

Editing by Dean Goodman

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