Into the Storm -- TV Review

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 England 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 a recent election to see if he'll stay in office. 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.

Airdate: 9 p.m., Sunday, May 31 (HBO)
Cast: Brendan Gleeson, Janet McTeer, Len Cariou, James D'Arcy, Iain Glen, Patrick Malahide
Production companies: HBO Films, BBC, Scott Free Prods., Rainmark Films
Executive producers: Ridley Scott, Tony Scott, David W. Zucker, David M. Thompson
Producers: Frank Doelger, Tracey Scoffield, Julie Payne, Ann Wingate
Writer: Hugh Whitemore
Director: Thaddeus O'Sullivan
Director of photography: Michel Amathieu
Production designer: Luciana Arrighi
Editors: John Bloom, Antonia van Drimmelen
Costume designer: Consolata Boyle
Music: Howard Goodall
Casting: Kate Rhodes James