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Published Date: 09/01/2018
In the early days of WWII, the fate of Western Europe hangs on the newly-appointed British Prime Minister Winston Churchill, who must decide whether to negotiate with Hitler, or fight on against incredible odds.
At the time of writing Gary Oldman has already won the Best Actor Golden Globe Award and received a Leading Actor BAFTA nomination for his portrayal of Winston Churchill in Darkest Hour. Oldman has already incarnated real-life figures ranging from Sid Vicious to Beethoven to Lee Harvey Oswald but Winston Churchill had always fascinated the acclaimed actor: "Churchill was truly our greatest statesman. Yet he wasn’t someone that I was looking to play. In fact, the prospect of playing him had come my way years ago and I’d rejected the idea. It wasn’t the psychological or the intellectual challenge that was the hurdle, it was the physical component. I mean, you need only look at me and look at Churchill...” Even so, he admits, “With who was joining up on Darkest Hour, my inclination became to say yes."
The idea to dramatise Churchill's Darkest Hour came to BAFTA Award-winning screenwriter (The Theory of Everything) and producer Anthony McCarten.
“Words can, and do, change the world. This is precisely what happened through Winston Churchill in 1940,” marvels McCarten. “He was under intense political and personal pressure, yet he was spurred to such heights in so few days – over and over again.”
McCarten has long held an interest in the legendary statesman’s life, and like many he has found inspiration in Churchill’s speeches and oratory. His most recent screenplay, receiving an Academy Award nomination for The Theory of Everything, explored another great man, Stephen Hawking, whose words changed the world even after he could no longer speak. McCarten found himself gravitating towards the intense period “of May 10th through June 4th, during which Winston turned coal into diamonds.”
It’s a common saying that the first few days and weeks on the job are challenging. For this 65-year-old man, being named Prime Minister of Great Britain on May 10th, 1940 came at a time when the stakes could scarcely have been higher. Allied Forces were already at war with Adolf Hitler, and one democracy after another had fallen to his Nazi regime. Britain now stood on the edge of a precipice. The dilemma was to either steel the nerves and be drawn deep into the conflict; or retreat from the war altogether, with inconceivable consequences for British sovereignty.
McCarten clarifies, “The question was whether to fight on alone, perhaps to the destruction of the armed forces and even the nation, or to play it safe – as Viscount Halifax and [outgoing] Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain believed – and to that end explore signing a treaty with Hitler. Winston had to wade into this fray, and he found himself battling the establishment. “This story is anchored in the past yet it resonates all the way into the here and now. Too often today, our ‘leaders’ are followers. These decisions made in less than one month’s time had global ramifications.”
Directing Darkest Hour is Joe Wright. A longtime collaborator partner with production company Working Title (Atonement), Wright remarks, “Our relationship has grown and developed. There’s always a wonderful can-do-attitude at Working Title: here’s the script, here’s the director, here’s the actors, let’s make a movie! And we do.”
Wright found himself “immediately wrapped up in what was a real page-turner, pure drama. What I liked about Anthony’s wonderful script is that it’s not a ‘biopic.’ It dramatises a few crucial weeks in our history straight through, so there’s no jumping forward or back and no ageing.”
Darkest Hour held an even more elemental appeal for Oldman, who admits, “I wanted to say those words; Churchill’s speeches - which he wrote himself - are some of the greatest in the English language. He was remarkable because he didn’t go in for purple prose, or overload with metaphor or imagery. He could make use of those when needed. But he understood the people he was speaking directly to, and made sure that what he said just went right to the heart of the nation. “All the while, he was experiencing adversity. His own government didn’t want him. There was infighting in the War Cabinet, and Churchill feared for the lives of the thousands of men trapped at Dunkirk. To be under that kind of duress, under that kind of pressure, and to craft some of the greatest use of the English language…it was nothing short of miraculous.”
Darkest Hour would put one of Oldman’s tenets to the test. He notes, “It all starts with the voice. I had to convince myself that I could sound like Churchill. So I got one of his speeches and a phone recorder and started to experiment. Then I dug into written materials outside of the screenplay to learn about the man who took on a tyrant. I wanted to get at the psychological and the intellectual. I wanted to build him brick by brick.”
Oldman’s meticulous preparation is certainly paying off and we fully expect the honours and acclaim bestowed on Darkest Hour thus far be just the beginning.
Darkest Hour opens at Showcase on January 12
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