History in the making
In Darkest Hour, British filmmaker Joe Wright finds the humanity and relevance in one of Churchill's defining moments, Kate Taylor writes
The British film and television director Joe Wright is perhaps best known for costume dramas with literary credentials, including adaptations of Pride and Prejudice and Anna Karenina. This year, he turned his attention to more recent history, directing Darkest Hour in which Gary Oldman plays Winston Churchill in 1940, forced to make the fateful decision not to negotiate with Hitler but to fight even as British troops are surrounded at Dunkirk. Wright spoke with The Globe and Mail during the Toronto International Film Festival in September.
Was Gary Oldman your choice for the role?
Yeah. Gary is someone who, growing up in north London, in the seventies, eighties, early nineties, he was like the one who got out. I know that is an idea normally attributed to small towns, but in a way Islington was a small town in those days. He was a hero to a whole generation of actors and directors. There was a community of us and he was a shining beacon, the one who made it to Hollywood.
It can be difficult for an actor to portray someone very famous; we have seen Churchill on film, we have heard the speeches. I wonder what was the tenor of your conversations with Gary about how to play Churchill?
Churchill to us is a giant figure, standing on top of a plinth, totally unapproachable. I wanted to bring Churchill down from that plinth, and meet him face to face, eye to eye and examine his faults as well as his strengths. It was important for me not to just do a puff piece. Is that the right term?
Exactly. There are a lot of Churchill's policies and actions that I personally find very difficult, not least his position on women's suffrage at the beginning of the century. I am married to an Indian, so his position on Indian independence I find very difficult. Gallipoli was a disaster. So I didn't want to brush over the faults in the man, but I wanted a humane portrait. At this particular point in history he was the right man at the right hour and he understood the horrors of Hitler and Nazism. He was right about that. I like that idea, that we can be wrong about a lot of things but also right about stuff. That makes him human to me.
So what did you say to Gary?
I said all that. I said I had discovered a kind of humour within him, almost as a defence mechanism, that I hadn't seen before. And also an energy, a vitality, a vigour, that was unexpected. He's normally played as this gruff, heavy man but what I saw when I studied him was a light being.
And Gary is not an obvious choice physically …
The funny thing about Gary is that he's never been defined by what he looks like. Which is unusual for an actor. Somehow he's a shape shifter. If he believes he's Churchill, we believe. And people do seem to completely buy him in the role. Yes, the prosthetics, we worked very hard at that, the body suit, we had all that, but really it's the power of Gary's imagination that makes the audience believe. There are certain actors that are like magicians. They can make you see things that aren't really there.
We all know the outcome; we know who is right. We know Lord Halifax and Neville Chamberlain are wrong in wanting to negotiate with Hitler. How do you address that as a director, from the point of view of creating suspense?
It's a matter of forgetting the outcome. Pretending you don't know and placing yourself in the drama moment to moment. One of my notes during film was just: 'Remember that you don't know what is going to happen next.' Because Churchill could have been wrong, the evacuation of the British Expeditionary Force from Dunkirk could have been a failure. If Hitler had moved on Britain instead of [moving] toward Paris, it is entirely likely he would have managed to invade Britain and the outcome would have been very different. But Churchill was morally right, and there's a difference.
Why are we so interested in this period at the moment? This is one of several current films about the war and the immediate aftermath.
I really don't have an answer for you. I always wished I could make a topical film. I started in January, 2016. There was nothing particularly topical about it or prescient. And then the events of 2016 unfolded globally and suddenly this wave of topicality crashed over us, and be careful what you wish for.
How do you respond to those who feel that your film, and Dunkirk also, are comfort for little Englanders or Brexiters?
I won't speak for Dunkirk, but the thing about Churchill is that great icons often get co-opted, appropriated by forces, groups they might not necessarily have supported if they were around. That is certainly true of Churchill. Churchill was the first person to come up with the idea of a European union. He talked about it in 1947 as a direct response to the horrors of the Second World War. It wasn't about a free market, it was about finding a lasting peace in Europe. Early on, there was a line in the script I included, once Brexit had happened, where he is looking out a window and seeing the refugees and says something like "This can't go on; we must build a unified Europe." I cut that line, because it felt didactic. I wanted the audience to come up with their own answers.
Darkest Hour opens Dec. 8 in Toronto, before expanding across the country Dec. 15.