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Film / The Gathering Storm

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Winston's back.

The Gathering Storm is an award-winning 2002 BBC-HBO TV film about Winston Churchill in the years leading up the Second World War, starring Albert Finney as Churchill and Vanessa Redgrave as his wife Clementine.

The film tells of how Churchill came up from the political wilderness in the early 30s to a position of much more prominence by 1939, by leading the opposition to the appeasement policies of Stanley Baldwin (Derek Jacobi). He was able to do this by being secretly passed classified information about the German military build-up by a source in the Foreign Office, Ralph Wigram (Linus Roache), with the complicity of military intelligence official Desmond Morton (Jim Broadbent), and despite the watchful eye of Wigram's boss, Sir Robert Vansittart (Tom Wilkinson), who is actually against appeasement but who couldn't approve of what Wigram is doing. Meanwhile, the exasperated Baldwin gets underling Ivo Pettifer (a fictional amalgam of various people, played here by Hugh Bonneville) to find out who's passing Churchill classified stuff and get him to stop doing it. Pettifer puts pressure on Wigram's wife Ava (Lena Headey) to get her husband to stop doing what he's doing, but she refuses.


Meanwhile, Churchill has to deal with his chronic lack of money and the activities of his useless son Randolph (Tom Hiddleston), who's unsuccessfully trying to get his own political career going.

Eventually, the strain of covertly feeding Churchill information is too much for Wigram and he unexpectedly dies. However, Churchill's warnings are borne out by developments, and the film ends with him being appointed to Neville Chamberlain's war cabinet as First Lord of the Admiralty.

The film won multiple awards, including a Peabody Award and an Emmy for Outstanding Writing, and Albert Finney got a BAFTA and an Emmy for his performance as Churchill.


The Gathering Storm provides examples of:

  • Adaptational Villainy: Baldwin in the film is Churchill's main antagonist and seems to regard Churchill mostly as an irritant, but in real life, he had a far more complex attitude; it's just that the film takes Churchill's perspective (and subsequent history) for granted. note 
  • Affectionate Nickname: The Churchills have these for each other: "Mr. Pug" and "Pussycat".
  • Age Lift: Violet Pearman, who was in her mid-30s at the point that the film starts, is played by 50-year-old Celia Imrie.
  • Anti-Villain: Baldwin. He genuinely wants peace, and thinks that Hitler can be stopped without going to war. He's just a bit of a douchebag about how he goes about silencing Churchill's counter-arguments. At the end, he concedes that Churchill was almost certainly right.note 
  • Can't Use Stairs: The Wigrams' son is severely disabled.
  • Composite Character: Ralph Wigram. Everything about his depiction is pretty much accurate, including the threats made to him and his having a disabled son, but he wasn't the only official passing information to Churchill. The filmmakers made the other characters into him so as to avoid unnecessary duplication.
  • Faux Affably Evil: Ivo Pettifer, superficially polite but quick to threaten the withdrawal of medical care from the Wigrams' son if Ralph doesn't stop embarrassing the prime minister.
  • Freeze-Frame Ending: The film ends on Churchill making a defiant gesture as he arrives at the Admiralty.
  • Freudian Trio: Churchill, who's The Leader, is The Kirk; Desmond Morton, who's the most sensible and level-headed one, is The Spock; Ralph Wigram, who's passionately worried about the Nazi threat, is The McCoy.
  • Girl Friday: Churchill's secretary, Violet Pearman. Overlaps with Beleaguered Assistant except that he's not actually incompetent.
  • Grumpy Old Man: Churchill, naturally.
  • Happily Married: Zig-zagged with Churchill and Clementine. They start out reasonably happy, then his increasing irritability makes her take a long overseas trip. It's implied that, in the course of this, a guy expressed great interest in her and she was flattered by the interest. This makes Churchill very jealous, he blows up at her and she rebukes him for his selfishness, whereupon he doesn't exactly apologise but does admit that he's very unhappy without her, and they make up.
    • Played straight with Ralph and Ava Wigram.
  • Historical Hero Upgrade: The film portrays Churchill as, at best, a somewhat cantankerous old buffer who's still basically right about everything, and also, with regard to the German threat, the Only Sane Man in the British government. It omits any mention of his opposition to Indian independence; his absolutely rabid opposition, during this period, to socialism of any kind; or the fact that he was far from the only British politician who was issuing warnings about Nazi Germany. This is probably why it's so popular among hardcore Churchill fans.
  • I Did What I Had to Do: Baldwin says this to Churchill at the end, after it's all too clear that Hitler wants war: he genuinely believed that Hitler could be appeased, and did everything he could to make it happen.
  • It's Personal: The information that the Nazis have started euthanising disabled and mentally ill people (the infamous T4 programme) makes opposition to their regime into this for Ralph, whose son is severely disabled.
  • Royal Brat: Randolph. He's not actually royal, but he does expect a political career to be handed to him on a plate.
  • Shame If Something Happened: Pettifer tries to use this to get Ava to tell her husband to stop passing info to Churchill: they have a disabled son, and if Ralph is posted somewhere distant, it may be somewhere where they can't get their son the medical help he needs. Backfires because this makes her determined to not do what he wants.
  • Shameless Fanservice Guy: Churchill has no problem dictating letters to Mrs P. while he's in the bath.