Into the Storm
HBO // Unrated // $26.98 // December 1, 2009
Review by Nick Hartel | posted January 2, 2010
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"Into the Storm" is the second join production from the BBC and HBO revolving around the life of Winston Churchill. In 2002 "The Gathering Storm" featuring Albert Finney in an Emmy and BAFTA winning performance as one of the most famous leaders of the 20th Century. While that film focused on the years just prior to World War II, it wouldn't be until 2009 that the intended sequel would come to fruition. Albert Finney as well as the remainder of the preceding film's principal cast would not return. In their place, the very capable Brendan Gleeson would take the acting helm of a film examining the World War II years of Churchill's life.

I have yet to see "The Gathering Storm" nor know much about Churchill to compare this film's merits to, but frankly, the end result is a very competent, however, mildly disappointing ride. The film strips much of the focus away from the war as a whole and instead portrays key events of the conflict in Churchill's life as extended flashbacks. The film is book ended, as are the key events by present day scenes of Churchill on holiday with his family, with the 1945 election looming around the corner. It becomes apparent that Churchill's demeanor and relationship with his wife has changed greatly during the six years preceding it, so for the filmmakers to shortchange the life of Churchill as well as the enjoyment of the viewers, with a rather rushed production, is maddening.

The short (98 minutes) runtime these critical six years are crammed into end up forcing the production to undermine the powerful performances with classic Hollywood clichés. Churchill's stirring and famous, "We shall fight them on the beaches" speech is drawn out into a rather flat montage, going from him dictating to an assistant, to addressing parliament, and finally into Churchill at the microphone, broadcasting to the nation. While it could be argued, that such a powerful moment deserves to be made a centerpiece of the film, I'd argue to the contrary. While the montage could partially be justified, the annoying score noisily interrupting it can't. Gleeson is a force of nature on the screen and the filmmakers should have more faith in his own talents to stir the audience; instead we are told when to be moved by a very pedestrian, score that could be tossed onto any unremarkable biopic.

The moments that do work are the small ones, when the idea of Winston Churchill fades away and the audience is left with Winston Churchill the man. A quiet scene between Churchill and a wounded soldier speak volumes about the heart of the man. Fortunately, Brendan Gleeson maintains this powerful presence throughout the entire feature, even when a less than daring story is presented to him. He deserves all the accolades that have come to him and his Emmy award winning performance easily justifies the existence of the disc. He becomes lost in the role and is virtually unrecognizable when placed against his larger body of work. His supporting cast are quite competent as well, most notably Janet McTeer, filling the large shoes of Vanessa Redgrave as Churchill's faithful but increasingly suffering wife.

"Into the Storm" ultimately concludes leaving me asking HBO, why didn't you do more? The film's opening moments are very misleading, recalling the opening of "The Queen" a fantastic, brilliantly acted, and yes, short character piece. I was nearly certain, that this is the type of film "Into the Storm" was going to use as inspiration, but instead, viewers are left with a neutered epic. This story deserved the "Elizabeth I" treatment, where all supporting characters would get a chance to be fully developed and the effect the war had on the life of both Winston and his wife to be more fleshed out. As it turns out, "Into the Storm" winds up being a lazy success.


The Video

The 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer is fantastic. HBO has yet to disappoint me in their technical presentations. The detail level is remarkably strong as is the color reproduction of the depressed war years. I tried my best to find any noticeable flaws and aside from a softer look to a handful of outdoor scenes, I came up with nothing.

The Audio

The English 5.1 Dolby Digital audio mix may appear to be overkill for a largely quiet, character piece, but color me surprised when my sound system came to life during scenes on an airfield or during a brief look at London under siege. Even during one the film's latter moments with Churchill speaking to his wife in a spacious room, showed some attention to sound design with the echoes of his voice lightly showing up in the rear. Most importantly, the track is well mixed and as frustrating as the score tends to be, it never overpowers the dialogue. French and Spanish 2.0 tracks are present as are English, French, and Spanish subtitles.

The Extras

Two extras are to be found, including an insightful commentary from producer Frank Doelger and writer Hugh Whitemore. The two have a lot to say and definitely know the history of their subject. "The Making of 'Into the Storm'" is a largely promotional, brief look at the production of the feature and was likely used as promotional filler between programs on HBO.

Final Thoughts

"Into the Storm" while far from a waste of time, is a minor letdown. It is held strong by Brendan Gleeson's fantastic performance and a competent script. Despite my somewhat negative feelings towards aspects of the production, it still gets a hearty thumb up, even if I wish it aspired to be more than it was. Additionally, HBO deserves separate praise for a very solid audio/video presentation. Recommended.

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