Never Give Up: Joe Wright and Gary Oldman revisit Winston Churchill’s ‘Darkest Hour’

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The last two years have been something of an odd time, professionally speaking, for director Joe Wright. Since his feature film debut in 2005, he’s established himself as the crème de la crème of period dramas. With Pride & Prejudice, Atonement and Anna Karenina, Wright brings emotional impactfulness and an inventive visual sensibility to a genre that can often get bogged down by “Masterpiece Theatre”-esque stodginess; though they may be wearing corsets and cravats, the characters in a Joe Wright film never feel like anything less than real, messy human beings.

“Messy” also describes the critical consensus around Pan, the 2015 Peter Pan origin story that served as Wright’s first foray into big-budget studio filmmaking. (I have to come down on the side of liking the film—if a Peter Pan movie isn’t overstuffed and visually bonkers, what’s even the point of it?) “The reception of Pan—and this is nothing to do with the film or anyone who worked on it—was a bit of a rock bottom for me, really,” recalls the director.

Wright pulled out of the films he was attached to (“which was unfortunately then reported as me having been fired”) in order to “take stock of what it was that I loved about film and filmmaking… I didn’t know how to move forward, and then Charlie Brooker sent me a script for a ‘Black Mirror’ episode”—“Nosedive,” starring Bryce Dallas Howard as a woman obsessed with attaining validation through social media. “It’s small, it’s contained, it’s great writing and Bryce Dallas Howard is a great actress. Working with her on-set during that little film, I finally remembered what I love! And what I love is drama. How people communicate—or, sadly more often than not, miscommunicate—with each other. That is what I find fascinating and interesting and why I [tell stories] in the first place. And so I’m excited at the moment, because I feel like I’m on a new path, a new phase of my career, which is just about doing drama, really.”

Wright resurfaced from this period of creative reckoning to direct his latest, Darkest Hour, starring a virtually unrecognizable Gary Oldman as Winston Churchill. The famed Prime Minister is no new figure to the big screen, and much of the history that figures into Darkest Hour has been tackled in other films before. Here, we peer into the terrifying early days of World War II, when Hitler’s troops were rampaging virtually unchecked across continental Europe. With an eventual invasion of England looking more and more likely, it was up to Churchill, just a few weeks into his Prime Ministership, to decide whether to appease Hitler, as his predecessor Neville Chamberlain (Ronald Pickup) did, or commit to war.

“I think it’s something that a lot of British people don’t really understand,” argues Wright. “People don’t really get how close we came to being utterly defeated. And also very few people are aware of how close we came to making a peace deal. That is something that’s unthinkable to most British people.”

(One component of Darkest Hour is the evacuation of Allied troops from the beaches of Dunkirk, which—if unsuccessful—would have wiped out the bulk of the British army all the way back in 1940. Darkest Hour is the third film this year to tackle Dunkirk in some capacity, after Lone Scherfig’s Their Finest and Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk. Wright says that “I only discovered that Chris Nolan was doing a film about Dunkirk when we were quite far into the preparation of this movie. When I heard about it, I was a bit despondent for a day, then I forgot about it,” preferring to double down on his own vision instead of comparing himself to others. Later, he saw the film and thought it was an “absolute masterpiece.”)

Familiar though some of Darkest Hour’s subject matter may be, Wright and screenwriter Anthony McCarten (The Theory of Everything) tackle it in a way that is uniquely suited to the director. This isn’t just a by-the-books historical rundown; it’s a deft, accomplished meditation on the power of language and the difficulties humans face in attempting to understand and communicate with one another. The latter theme took prominence in Wright’s Pride & Prejudice and Atonement; with Darkest Hour, Wright widens the scope to look at the intricacies of communication not between individuals, but between government and citizens.

“I thought a lot about power, really,” says Wright of his approach to the material. “How Churchill and these generals and politicians are responsible for the lives of so many millions of people, and how it must be possible to feel quite distant from people when you’re in that position—from the repercussions of your actions and words. In a way, the film is about Winston’s relationship with the public. He starts off being quite dislocated from them, really.”

Eventually, Churchill finds himself in the London underground, “where he finally breaks out of his bubble and goes and connects” with the average person about their willingness to (to quote the man himself) “fight in the fields and in the streets” should a German invasion occur. Wright admits to taking “enormous liberty” with the scene, which is “purely fictitious”; in reality, Churchill consulted with the MPs, who are elected directly by the people. “Though the scene was a bit of a liberty, it still had the essence of truth to it,” he explains.

The disconnection between politician and populace is echoed in the aesthetic of Darkest Hour, which is peppered by cinematographer Bruno Delbonnel (Inside Llewyn Davis, Amélie) with stunning high-angle shots of both literal and figurative battlefields—French war zones and the floor of Parliament—that suggest the scope and significance of what we’re looking at. Those are juxtaposed with claustrophobic scenes of Churchill and his war cabinet—including right-hand man Sir Anthony Eden (Samuel West), Chamberlain and similarly gun-shy Viscount Halifax (Stephen Dillane)—conferring in what for all intents and purposes looks to be an underground bunker.

“I’ve always really enjoyed scale,” comments Wright. “The opening of Atonement was a shot of a dollhouse,” with Briony’s (Saoirse Ronan) meticulous placement of her dolls echoing the later way she would manipulate the lives of lovers Robbie (James McAvoy) and Cecilia (Keira Knightley). “It seems to be something that keeps coming up—these ideas of scale and of [being] a puppetmaster. The disconnection between an individual and other people, and the understanding of other people as humans who have their own consciousness, just as you do.”

Darkest Hour boasts a collection of top-notch supporting performances from Pickup, Dillane, West, Ben Mendelsohn as King George VI, Kristin Scott Thomas as Clementine Churchill and Lily James as Elizabeth Layton, Churchill’s secretary and one of his few connections to the “real” people of Britain…but the whole movie would have fallen apart without Oldman’s pitch-perfect performance as the great man himself. But maybe not “great” in the sense that he’s come to be understood.

“Certainly, in Britain, Churchill has been put up on a pedestal and has become such an icon to so many millions of people. But, in a way, I think to put anyone up on a pedestal is to do them a disservice, because one no longer sees them as a real human being: three-dimensional and flawed and beautiful and insecure and powerful,” Wright argues. “The idea in this movie was to try and bring Churchill down from his pedestal, but not to throw him in the gutter by any means. To bring him face-to-face, eye-to-eye, and to try to understand him as a human being like us.”

“One of the interesting things I find about Churchill is that he was wrong about so many things, in my opinion,” Wright continues. “He was wrong about Indian independence. He was certainly wrong about the women’s suffrage movement in his youth. He was wrong about a lot of British policy towards Ireland. And yet he was very, I think, right in his understanding of Hitler and Nazism. One tries to make a film that is balanced and loving, really. Kind.”

Key to Oldman’s interpretation of Churchill was his “vitality and energy,” says Wright, which is missing in the popular perception of the man as something of a “fat slowpoke… If you watch footage of him, he walked really fast, and he thought really fast.” To strike the right tone, Oldman “spent four months preparing to play Churchill. Literally every day, Monday to Friday, he would go to the room above his garage and work on playing Churchill, either reading or watching or listening or practicing the voice and the mannerisms. And he would send me these incredible recordings, voice memos recorded on his phone, of himself delivering the final speech and so on. It was an incredible privilege to bear witness to.” Beyond firebrand speeches, Oldman captures the wit of Churchill, who according to people who knew him “was always a hair’s breadth away from humor, from laughter, even at the most trying of times,” says Wright. “There was always, just below the surface, a humorous twinkle. And I think that was quite fundamental to Gary’s conception of the role.”

Fundamental to Darkest Hour’s conception of Churchill, per Wright, is one word: doubt. History, so the adage goes, is written by the victors. In this case, the victor—the person who more than any other guided the popular consensus of Britain’s role in World War II—was Churchill. And “he painted himself in a very, very good light. He never really admitted the depths of doubt that he experienced. It’s only in later years, when the minutes of those cabinet meetings became available, that we began to see how close he came to acquiescing.”

Far from resolute and determined—a “Keep Calm and Carry On” poster made flesh—Darkest Hour’s Churchill is racked by doubt: doubt of his ability to come in as a political “wild card” and lead the government, doubt about whether Britain could win a war against Germany, doubt about decisions that could lead to the deaths of millions. “We so often think about doubt as being ambivalent and wishy-washy,” Wright says. “But actually, doubt is an incredibly important element to leadership. The ability to question everything, rather than just tearing through on a path created by your own ego. To actually stop and doubt yourself, and to doubt the information that’s been given to you. All scientific endeavor has been granted to us through doubt. And I think it’s also incredibly important about politics.”