On the face of it, a film about three weeks in the life of political icon Winston Churchill, at the most critical time in the Second World War, could have been as dry as old bones, but director Joe Wright and Scriptwriter Anthony McCarten, together with an absolutely stellar cast, headed up by the remarkable Gary Oldman, have, in Darkest Hour, delivered up a gem of a film and an absolutely stunning portrait of the great man.
On general release in the USA on 22nd November 2017 and 12th January 2018 in the UK, Darkest Hour is a tale woven around the speeches given by Churchill in the first few weeks of his tenure as Prime Minister. Opening with the resignation of Neville Chamberlain, on 10th May 1940, just a few hours before the German invasion of France, the film exposes the political posturing of ‘men at the top’, whilst revealing a version of Churchill we haven’t seen before, that of, in the words of scriptwriter McCarten, “a man who changed his position on the critical issues by the day and sometimes by the hour”.
Joe Wright, director of such films as Atonement and Pride and Prejudice, explains how he likes examine things people think they know, taking “Churchill off his plinth and meeting him face to face to see what we can learn from the human rather than the icon”. In doing so he has offered up an impressively visual feast, albeit one where the facts are sometimes less important than the essential truth of a moment or a character. Wright is unapologetic. He believes that “there’s a lot of creative licence in every act of creation”.
McCarten offers a complementary take on the matter: “there’s a very fine line between creative licence and creative licensciousness and both history audiences have certain tolerances. If you’re going to start a film with the words ‘based on a true story’ you have to get it right.” For that reason he argues, the gaps in our knowledge must be handled sensitively and then only after a great deal of research. It’s this approach that has allowed Wright and McCarten to deliver a gem of a film, which gets to the very heart and soul of that ‘darkest hour’.
For Gary Oldman, as the mistrusted and disgruntled Churchill, his challenge was that “you’re not actually playing someone who is arguably the greatest politician that ever lived, you’re also up against the lineage of all the other people who have played him. You think you have the idea of Churchill is, but you’re not remembering Churchill, you’re remembering Robert Hardy playing Churchill.” Oldman says he had to slay that double psychological whammy before he could address the character with any conviction.
Oldman wasn’t the only cast member who had reservations about taking on an iconic historical character; Kristen Scott Thomas plays Clementine Churchill. “It’s somebody we do know less about. We know what she looked like but it sort of stops. She was a sort of Saint, but in the background.” Scott Thomas remarks that she read every book she could find, fearing that in some way she would betray the memory of her. In the end though, she had to let that idea go. “I got very wound up in getting her right and trying to have respect for her and not lie about her, but then I had to give up because I don’t know her, I didn’t encounter her and won’t ever encounter her.” In that moment, Kristen Scott Thomas made Clementine Churchill her own, right down to the tightly wound white curls and perfect poise.
Darkest Hour has two central female characters, the aforementioned Clementine Churchill, and the Secretary, Elizabeth Layton played by Lily James, who is perhaps best known for playing Lady Rose in Downton Abbey. James offers up a portrayal that is at once reserved and initially naive, but as the story unfolds the character becomes more confident and self-reliant, until eventually she is Churchill’s much trusted secretarial side-kick, mouthing the words of his speech even as he stands in Parliament to deliver it.
Others in this remarkable cast include Ben Mendelsohn as the stuttering King George VI, Ronald Pickup as Neville Chamberlain, and Stephen Dillane as the somewhat reviled Lord Halifax, but as good as their performances are, it’s Oldman that remains centre stage in this dialogue-heavy film, which some might argue might equally well make a great West End play.
Oldman’s attention to detail, right down to when to apply Churchill’s trademark lisp and his smoking of £18,000 worth of Romeo Y Julieta cigars are testament to his desire to get inside Churchill’s skin. “Watching the newsreel footage of him I didn’t see a rather shuffling, curmudgeon with a cigar, I saw someone who was very dynamic and very full of energy and very alive… there was a sparkle in his eye, a twinkle in his eye and a cherubic grin.” Oldman is at pains to explain that it wasn’t a case of just sitting in the make-up chair and going through his lines as he might in other, more light-hearted films. The prosthetics required to create the Churchillian jowls precluded this and besides the text was somewhat more ponderous than usual. Likewise, he didn’t feel as if he could go through his lines after a sixteen-hour day. Fortunately, he’d had a whole year to immerse himself in both script and character, followed by a four week rehearsal period before coming to the set for the first take. This prolonged preparation shows in Oldman’s confident performance, where the lines drip from his tongue as if he is the man himself and this the first time the words are uttered.
All in all, Darkest Hour left me intensely moved, and allowed me to feel something of the heightened emotions of the time. There are only a couple of places where my suspension of disbelief was tested. I leave you to discover them for yourself. Go see Darkest Hour as soon as you can. You will not be disappointed.