Be careful what you wish for. As Joe Wright started working on “Darkest Hour” in January of 2016, he thought about one day hoping to make a topical film. But Brexit, the American election and the British election weren’t far behind. So surprise! When you’re making a movie about a world leader with immense, populist presence as an orator in a time of global crisis, your movie’s bound to be topical.
Wright’s choice to portray Winston Churchill in the film, Gary Oldman, was drawn to finally play the legendary wartime Prime Minister because of this specific, defining moment in Churchill’s legacy that speaks to our history.
“It’s a man who takes on a racist tyrant, and that’s worth telling,” Oldman told TheWrap’s Steve Pond. Oldman and Wright spoke as part of TheWrap’s Awards and Foreign Screening Series on Tuesday at the Landmark Theatres in Los Angeles to a packed house for “Darkest Hour.”
“I was fascinated by the character study and this strange little man, oddfellow, disregarding the icon and the myth, and just looking at him as an individual and human who with the power of words changed the course of history,” Wright said. “I identified with his doubt, and I identified with the potential for doubt to be used as a positive force for good and the attainment of wisdom.”
Oldman is notably buried under pounds of costuming and makeup to complete his physical transformation into Churchill (which he joked he preferred to spending the remaining years of his life losing weight), but the sophistication of his performance came from observing Churchill’s sense of branding and presentation whenever he spoke.
“He has been represented as this old curmudgeon, grumpy man. As our writer Anthony [McCarten] says, he’s been played like a man born in a bad mood,” Oldman said. “What I took from the newsreel footage was a dynamo, a dynamic figure. And he did have a cherubic face with a really naughty grin, a real twinkle in his eyes, and those were the little clues to try to find him.”
“Darkest Hour” focuses on Churchill’s rise to Prime Minister, his relationship with King George and how the battle of Dunkirk tested his resolve as rival politicians pressured him to make peace with Hitler. So while the story has contemporary parables, Wright resisted the desire to make this World War II story explicitly about 2017.
“You don’t want the word of the author to jump out at the audience,” Wright said. “And so I felt the best thing to do is to make a specific movie about a specific man at a specific time against a very specific enemy and allow the audience to project their own relevance onto it. It certainly feels like it’s necessary to be reminded of what good leadership looks like at the moment.”
Watch a clip from Oldman and Wright’s Q&A above.