- The Washington Times - Wednesday, April 24, 2002

LONDON — Vanessa Redgrave manages to get the words "human rights" into her first response even though the question is just a conversation opener: What was it like playing Winston Churchill's wife, Clementine?

"I don't see it as talking about Clemmie," Miss Redgrave says of "The Gathering Storm" (8 p.m. Saturday on HBO). "I see it as talking about this particular period, certainly the defining period for all human rights legislation."

The movie depicts the couple's combative yet affectionate and supportive relationship during the years leading up to World War II, when Churchill (played by Albert Finney) was out of power but vigorous in his stance against the looming Nazi threat.

"The Gathering Storm," shot on British locations that included the Churchills' home, Chartwell, was written by Hugh Whitemore and directed by Richard Loncraine. The cast includes Derek Jacobi, Hugh Bonneville, Tom Wilkinson and the latest supporting-actor Oscar winner, Jim Broadbent.

Despite her reputation for dedicated activism, Miss Redgrave is no one-note woman. People may still remember that she was booed when she won her supporting-actress Oscar for 1977's "Julia."

In 1998, she participated in a U.N. meeting on human rights, and more recently she led a candlelight vigil for those who have died in the Middle East.

Her serious beliefs are woven into the fabric of her emotions, ideas and speech, but there's still room for some laughs and skittishly friendly chitchat. The adjective "wonderful" is in constant use as her memories skip and float across a more-than-40-year career.

The West London flat she shares with her 91-year-old mother, the actress Lady Rachel Kempson, is an eclectic mix of timeworn beauty.

In the unostentatious living room, the casual hodgepodge of family photos and portraits catches the eye more readily than the acting trophy or two tucked way on a shelf or table.

Miss Redgrave has acted with her younger sister, Lynn Redgrave; her father, the late Michael Redgrave; and her daughter, Natasha Richardson; and she appeared with her mother in the 1968 film "The Charge of the Light Brigade."

A handsomely etched 65, the actress presents herself unadorned hair pulled back; blue eyes steady, more penetrating than penetrable; hands and mouth mobile to the needs of a smoking habit, for which she apologizes.

"Clemmie never smoked," she says, coughing up a laugh as she describes the difficulty of having to refrain while acting opposite "Albie puffing on a cigar all the time in the most wonderful way."

Miss Redgrave and Mr. Finney have enjoyed some connection for more than four decades. They first worked together as Helena and Lysander in a stage production of "A Midsummer Night's Dream" that starred Charles Laughton as Bottom.

Mr. Finney's 1963 movie "Tom Jones" was directed by Miss Redgrave's late husband, Tony Richardson. In 1974, Miss Redgrave and Mr. Finney co-starred in "Murder on the Orient Express," and there's talk of a possible sequel to "The Gathering Storm," depicting the years when Churchill was prime minister during World War II.

Tubby, snuffle-faced Churchill called himself "Mr. Pug" in the letters he wrote to his wife, whom he referred to as "Mrs. Pussycat."

The couple, even when home together, wrote to each other almost every day. Miss Redgrave says she found "Winston and Clementine: The Personal Letters of the Churchills" edited by their youngest daughter, Mary Soames to be an invaluable help.

The actress met with Miss Soames, too.

"She explained to me the lady from the inner point of view, which is extremely important," says Miss Redgrave, who won an Emmy, Golden Globe and Screen Actors Guild award for her previous work on HBO, "If These Walls Could Talk 2."

Miss Redgrave took particular note of Clementine's "daily curriculum," which began with reading newspapers of all political viewpoints.

"You could tell from her letters she would have considered herself an absolute failure if she had neglected to read carefully and thoughtfully all the political information that was connected with the concerns that were utmost in her husband's mind and hers," Miss Redgrave says.

Miss Soames also advised on her mother's appearance, explaining how she did her own hair soft curls, rolled up and pinned.

"Mary begged me not to make her hair too perfect not to make her look as though she had just come from a hairdresser," Miss Redgrave says.

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