The history of politics and wars have usually seen a charismatic man in the foreground and his wife distinctly in the shadows, given no greater task than to demurely support her husband. It’s a spotlight that Winston Churchill used to martial his country against impossible odds, especially during the opening salvos of World War II, when it looked like all was lost for the British Empire. But where many Americans might realize Churchill’s gravelly voice and stout figure, Into the Storm finally illuminates his rocky yet loving marriage to Clemmie, his younger wife whose political savvy and support would play no small part in her husband’s effort to save England and the world along with it.
While Into the Storm is loaded with textbook significance, it also succeeds as an often humorous and very human look at a passive-aggressive relationship. It’s one that may not remind viewers here so much of lionized historical figures as it will recall the relationship between The Honeymooners’ Ralph Kramden and his beloved Alice. But instead of a bus driver, it’s a big, blustering, pig-headed man who’s one of the leaders of the free world, treating his steadfastly intelligent and more-than-understanding wife with no small amount of insult and abuse. But in spite of their clashes, there’s an undeniable love between Winston and Clemmie that keeps them together, with the stakes higher than any troubled marriage can imagine.
It takes a lot to stand up to the kind of commanding ego that’s brilliantly portrayed by Brendan Gleeson (In Bruges). But then again, Oscar-nominated actress Janet McTeer has sympathetic charisma to spare as Clemmie Churchill, a woman who now gets her due with HBO Films’ Into the Storm. A popular character actress in England for her work in adaptations of Wuthering Heights, Miss Julie and Sense & Sensibility, as well for her Olivier Award-winning stage work, McTeer would fool many American viewers into thinking she was a southern country singer in 1999’s Tumbleweeds. And the critics brought completely, awarding McTeer critical and Academy acclaim. However, McTeer’s focus has always been on work instead of notoriety, continuing to work mostly in Britain, as well as on Broadway for her currently running Mary Stuart. Yet there’s little doubt that the chameleon-like actress will receive more plaudits for her role as Clemmie Churchill — a true leading lady who now joins Helen Mirren’s Queen Elizabeth as a definitive portrait of the demands and human cost of being a English public figure. For McTeer’s Clemmie, it’s at a time when never so few have sacrificed so much — in this case, with a marriage and country in the balance.
Daniel Schweiger: People are used to the “long-suffering” portrayal of a politician’s wife…but what made Clemmie different was that she stood up to Winston. It’s a dysfunctional, if loving relationship that’s as much a part of Into the Storm as Churchill’s struggle to have England survive through World War II.
Janet McTeer: Clemmie was very happy to be in the background of Churchill, and she often came across as the nice wife in the nice suit, but in actual fact, she was a clever woman who did a huge amount of work for Winston and was very influential on him. Churchill implicitly trusted Clemmie, from her opinion on people to her views on government policies, yet that was something they differed, because Clemmie was more left-wing than Winston was. They’d fight a lot about the political issues! So Clemmie was definitely a force to be reckoned with, in no uncertain terms. After reading up on her, I felt that quality was very much part of Churchill’s strength, and when she went away, he couldn’t cope at all. When we first meet them in Into the Storm, Clemmie’s relationship with Winston is stranded by the stress of the way, and by the end of it, their marriage is the unhappiest it ever is. Originally, there was a line in the film where she says, “Do you know we’ve had lunch together on our own — twice in seven years?” They were always surrounded by other people, and nobody can hold a relationship down with that kind of pressure.
DS: What do you think attracted Clemmie and Winston in the first place and kept them together through the “Storm?”
JM: When Clemmie first met Winston, he’d already made a splash as a young politician. She may have already been engaged to someone else, but I don’t think she was ever in love. So when Clemmie met Winston, that was pretty much it for her, and Winston was equally mad about her. They talked and talked about politics, because Clemmie was very political at a young age and, obviously, so was Winston. That already gave them a shared love. I couldn’t imagine a successful political couple if both partners weren’t interested in politics. Clemmie and Winston also wrote to each other every single day of their lives, sometimes three or four times a day. These lovely letters also kept their relationship alive. Sure, Winston Churchill was a patently extremely difficult man, but he was also very intelligent, charming and powerful. It was that combination that drove Clemmie mad and kept her in love with him through all of that time.
DS: Do you think Clemmie had any influence on Churchill’s policies?
JM: I think she did, but certainly not right after the war. She didn’t want Winston to go back into power because she thought it would kill him. She also violently disagreed with Churchill’s decisions and speeches. The war had been such hard work for Churchill, and she was desperate for their marriage. But how much of a part did she play in the height of his career? It’s hard to say. Yet, if you’ve got someone you can talk to and whose judgment you trust implicitly, then who’s to say what importance that takes on board? Clemmie would to run ideas by him and read his speeches. Undoubtedly, in the end, I don’t think Winston would have been any way near as successful as he would have been without her.
DS: Can you compare Clemmie to any of today’s female politicians or politician’s wives?
JM: Clemmie was in a completely different political generation, so of course one couldn’t compare her to Hilary Clinton or Michelle Obama, but in terms of the position that Clemmie had, I don’t think her role was too dissimilar to theirs. She was the head of The Red Cross and did a lot of the kind of work that wives of prime ministers do, and she was very, very good at doing it quietly. Clemmie raised a lot of war support money for Russia and went there as well — all of these things that weren’t screamed and shouted about but were very hard for Clemmie to accomplish, nonetheless.
DS: Can you relate to Clemmie Churchill’s difficulties at balancing work and family in your own life?
JM: Not at all, actually. The decisions that husbands and wives make in their normal lives and the demands of wartime are two completely different things. One is normal life, and the other is the outcome of the whole country. Nothing compares to that.
DS: Even after receiving a Best Actress Oscar nomination for Tumbleweeds, you’ve continued to do a lot of quality work in England, but not here so much. Did you ever think of using that opportunity to “go Hollywood?”
JM: No. The nomination coincided with things that made me need to be at home in England for various reasons. Being a “Hollywood” actress wasn’t really an option for me.
DS: One of your roles, since then, to really impress me was when you played Dell, a crazed recluse in Terry Gilliam’s Tideland. It’s an amazingly original film that more people should see.
JM: Dell was good fun, wasn’t she? I think Tideland suffered because it came right on the back of Terry’s The Brothers Grimm. I don’t know why it disappeared the way it did, because Terry is such a genius. I had a wonderful time working with him, especially since I got to have a false eye and wear dreadlocks. I never wanted to take them out! I hope Tideland will become a cult classic over the years.
DS: You really transform yourself when you take on a role.
JM: Yes, I do. I’d see myself in the mirror as Clemmie and I say, “Blimey, I don’t look anything like myself at all!”
DS: You look more than a bit like Queen Elizabeth in the role as well.
JM: I was aged up considerably for Clemmie. When we were doing the hair, they first put a grey wig on me that didn’t look right at all, so I said we should base the hair on my mum’s salt-and-pepper hair, which is still quite dark in the back. That was a lot more natural for me. And when we put that wig on, I looked like my mother! As for Queen Elizabeth, I’m much taller than her, so I suspect I wouldn’t be playing her in the future.
DS: You’re playing Mary Stuart on Broadway now. It’s a role that a lot of people identify with Vanessa Redgrave’s film portrayal as Mary, Queen of Scots. What’s it like taking such a historical figure to the stage?
JM: We’ve slightly re-invented Mary Stuart for this play. A lot of books have been written about her, many of which have seen her as a tall, blonde woman that lots of men fancied. But in fact, Mary was a very good politician before all of it went horribly wrong, and I wanted to reclaim her as that strong, powerful woman. Mary Stuart was also a great chance to work with Harriet Walter, a leading English stage actress who’s been an icon of mine since I was young. We’ve had a fantastic time performing together.
DS: What do you want American audiences to take away from Into the Storm?
JM: I think people might view England as having always been in a winning position during World War II, but in actual fact, and for quite a long time, it didn’t even look vaguely like we were going to win the war. Germany had invaded France, and it was only a tiny channel of water that separated them from England. But while Germany had way more land and power, England was way cleverer, and that spirit and intelligence was embodied by Winston Churchill. In this film, you see the early days of the war, when Winston was trying to get America involved in the fight. To go through that with Winston is really good fun to watch, and moving as well, in his relationship with Clemmie. You understand the pressure the war puts on them, and it takes a lot for any marriage to possibly survive something like that.
Into the Storm debuts on Sunday, May 31st at 8:00 p.m. on HBO. See Janet McTeer on stage as Mary Stuart at the Broadhurst Theater on Broadway.
Special thanks to Nancy Bishop and Venice Magazine.