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‘Darkest Hour’: How Cinematography Brought Winston Churchill’s Torrent of Words to Life

Director Joe Wright and cinematographer Bruno Delbonnel played a cunning game of light and shadow to help humanize Gary Oldman's Churchill.

4106_D013_00374_CROP(ctr) Gary Oldman stars as Winston Churchill in director Joe Wright's DARKEST HOUR, a Focus Features release.Credit: Jack English / Focus Features

“Darkest Hour”

Jack English


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In “Darkest Hour,” director Joe Wright and cinematographer Bruno Delbonnel (“Inside Llewyn Davis”) devised a striking visual strategy to underscore Gary Oldman’s Oscar buzzy performance as Winston Churchill. During his pivotal ascension as prime minister of Great Britain in 1940, they continually had him coming out of darkness to confront his self-doubt. This ultimately made him a stronger, more popular leader in fighting Hitler and Nazism.

“He’s a very strange character who tried to hide himself in the beginning,” said  Delbonnel. “It was always this idea of his going from darkness to light, darkness to light, every time. The first time we see him, he’s lit by his cigar and his butler opens the shade in his room to let the light in.”

4106_D023_00001_R_CROPLily James stars as Elizabeth Layton and Gary Oldman as Winston Churchill in director Joe Wright's DARKEST HOUR, a Focus Features release.Credit: Jack English / Focus Features

“Darkest Hour”

Jack English

Originally, the plan was to contrast exterior sunshine with interior darkness, since London experienced a beautiful spring in 1940. But with the production shooting in winter, there was constant rainfall, so Delbonnel brought the effect of sunlight indoors whenever possible.

Meeting the King at Buckingham Palace

For instance, Churchill’s first, tense meeting with King George VI (Ben Mendelsohn) in Buckingham Palace was a very dim setting. The blinds in front of the large windows in the actual Buckingham Palace provided a narrow sliver of sunlight, but Delbonnel asked production designer Sarah Greenwood to widen it where they were shooting to create an enormous shaft of light between these two men who disliked one another.

“We shot in a castle in the North of England and there were 17 windows in the corridor,” Delbonnel said. “So I suggested to put 17 lights outside for a shaft of light, and when Joe saw the effect he liked the idea of playing with it.”

The Alexa camera follows Churchill in Buckingham Palace, where he’s first touched by hard light in the corridor, then swallowed up by shadow when he enters the room, and finally enveloped by light again when he moves closer to the king.

4106_D015_00585_R_CROPGary Oldman stars as Winston Churchill and Ben Mendelsohn as King George VI in director Joe Wright's DARKEST HOUR, a Focus Features release.Credit: Jack English / Focus Features

“Darkest Hour”

Jack English

“It was interesting to play the tension near where the light was [with very high contrast] instead of having them sitting and discussing,” said Delbonnel. “It’s tense as well as comical.”

However, although the cinematographer would’ve preferred to place the two men farther apart in the room, Wright wanted them closer together. They grow closer still during a second meeting over lunch at Buckingham Palace. “The
room was almost more important than what they are saying about how disconnected they are in some ways,” Delbonnel said. “It’s like the end of an era. For me, it’s really when Britain changed, with war breaking out on the Continent.”

Connecting with People in the Underground

For Churchill, who was disconnected from the general public, there’s a humanizing moment when he’s forced to ride the London underground for the first time. There he gets the chance to gauge popular opinion about the War. Lighting here was dim as well, shooting in a rented carriage on a stage, with mounted strips of LEDs providing minimal shafts of light with the windows blacked out.

“Joe came with this idea of almost ID photography where [the passengers] stand up and tell their name,” said Delbonnel. “It was like a portrait of England in 1940. They’re staring at the camera and at Churchill… lock off shots with
Churchill always among the people. The idea was that the camera was another Londoner in some ways.”

The Defining Speech

For Churchill’s climactic speech in the House of Commons on June 4 after the legendary evacuation of Dunkirk, the visual scheme dramatically contrasts the opening.

4106_D049_00321_CROP Cast and crew filming on the set of director Joe Wright's DARKEST HOUR, a Focus Features release. Credit: Jack English / Focus Features

“Darkest Hour”

Jack English

“At the first House of Commons scene, he’s not there, he’s hiding, and there’s just his bowler hat that I lit in darkness,” said Delbonnel.

“And at the end, when he gives his speech, there’s very high contrast and there are some people lit behind him, But he’s right in the spotlight. There’s no way he can escape.”

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