In 2007, Joe Wright brought Ian McEwan’s celebrated war-time novel, “Atonement” to the big screen. The film famously captures one of the most harrowing moments in World War II, the evacuation of British troops from the beaches of Dunkirk, in a stunning and celebrated long shot. In his latest film, “Darkest Hour,” Wright returns once again to World War II, but this time from the perspective of one of Britain’s most famous politicians, Winston Churchill.
Prior to the film’s limited release on November 22, Focus Features hosted an early screening of “Darkest Hour” in New York City, where Wright spoke with IndieWire Deputy Editor Eric Kohn about Gary Oldman’s astonishing transformation into Churchill, his own reservations about the historical figure, and how he brought history to the big screen once again.
Initially, Wright said he wasn’t interested in making a film about Churchill, but the script — which focused more on Churchill the man, rather than the political figure — changed his mind. “He’s been kind of co-opted by different sides of the political spectrum,” Wright said. “Personally, I don’t think he would have wanted to be. So, looking at the character, looking at my own personal response to the character, I thought if I was able to take him down off the plinth and meet him eye to eye, I might be able to learn something. Then I thought ‘Okay, if Gary Oldman plays Winston Churchill, then I’m in,’ and much to my surprise, he said yes.”
Much has been made about Oldman’s jaw-dropping transformation as Churchill, one which Wright says took four hours of prosthetic makeup to accomplish. But Wright was confident that Oldman could bring the bulldog to the big screen, because he had the essence of Churchill’s character. “Gary as we know from his body of work has this incredible intensity that I wanted for Churchill, this dynamic almost manic energy,” Wright said. “So, I felt like he had the essence for the role, which is far more difficult to fake than the exterior.”
For Wright, working Oldman was a dream come true. “Gary had been a hero of mine since I was about 14, so I was immensely in awe of him,” Wright said. But the two soon formed a close bond and collaborated on bringing Churchill to life, from his mannerism to his speech. As he dug into Churchill, Wright was surprised to discover that there was so much more to the man than just the “icon on the postage stamp.”
“Churchill is often portrayed as having been born in a bad mood, whereas actually the Churchill we saw was quite fun,” Wright said. “We played with that energy and that dynamism, we played with the humor.” What surprised him most about the character? “His doubt,” Wright said, “and that was the central reason for me wanting to make the movie. For me, personally, it’s a movie about doubt, and the importance of doubt in the obtaining of wisdom. That moment when Churchill loses everything is when he gains everything as well.”
Wright added that Churchill is still a relevant political figure, nearly 80 years after the events depicted in the movie. “We did a screening in Washington the other day,” Wright said. “I was joined in a Q&A by two congressmen, one from the Democrats and one from the Republicans, both of whom claimed Churchill. And I found that really interesting because he is a character who everyone wants to claim and project their own ideals onto. I think there’s something quite special about that.”
But, despite how topical Churchill still can be in a post-Brexit, post-Trump world, Wright kept modern day politics out of the film. “When I tried putting in lines about these things it just stank of didactic sermonizing,” he said. “So, I chose to make a film about a very specific character at a very specific time and allow the audience to decide. I think the job of a storyteller is to present question but not necessarily to give answers, I trust my audience to figure out the answers for themselves.”
“Darkest Hour” hits theaters on November 22.