Gary Oldman`s Churchill-style smoking master-class, and why Ben Mendelsohn does not need the Queen`s permission: Darkest Hour on screen

The vibrant trend towards early WWII history overwhelmed cinematography in 2017. We have already seen British-made Churchill telling the tale of Normandy two-day talks, then came picturesque but detached Dunkirk with its faceless and nameless enemy, and now it`s Darkest Hour turn to put things right. The film starring Gary Oldman seems to be more realistic, lifelike and atmospheric than all listed above. But why seems – it surely is, I have seen it with my own eyes at SFFilm Honors special screening in November where it was granted with special award sponsored by SFFilm Board members Todd and Katie Traina. So it will be better to have not just a BlogProFilm opinion here, but also comments of film creators and its stars this time.

‘The Leader Of The Luck’

Winston Churchill is an iconic figure in the history of 20th century not only for the Great Britain, but for the whole world. As any other politician he can`t be painted strictly white or black, his career knew peaks and valleys along its serpentine way, but that were right the early days of his first term as Prime Minister which caught the attention of writer Anthony McCarten and director Joe Wright. Why not adventurous military youth in distant colonies, why not writer`s and journalist`s experience, why not victorious Yalta and Potsdam Conferences?


“I was interested in this character on the page put in a position of enormous power who experienced a huge moment of self-doubt”,

said Joe Wright at the post-screening Q&A,

“That was the journey for me, the dislocation between Churchill and the people, and how he finally comes to be the mouthpiece and the spokesman for the people”.


“He was the leader of the luck”,

agrees Anthony McCarten, and they both are right: Winston Churchill was not the most desirable candidate to this post but appeared to be that uniting and inspiring one to bring the nation to strength in war and resistance instead of miserable talks with the aggressor who understood the language of weapons only.

 

Self-doubt might be the keyword for how all the characters – all real historic persons by the way – are extrapolated in the film. That hour was the darkest one for Britain but also for those people who was trying not to lose control over it. For some of them their self-doubt led to personal and political disaster of losing faith in themselves and the country, for others like Churchill it showed the only choice to protect the country and bring back people`s loyalty and allegiance.

‘Claustrophobia’ Aesthetics

What makes a historical film or biopic alive and inspiring? – An interesting story behind the well-known characters, fair acting skills, costume design, camera work and realistic style of the age. Darkest Hour employs best practices of all this, comprising true facts, brilliant talents, impressive scenes and target shot in all smallest details which paint the pre-War Europe in those shady colors picked precisely to reflect its tangible fragility and uncertainty in every moment, in every motion, in every untold thought. Visual aesthetics is a core of filmmaking, and there was nothing wrong in painting Darkest Hour in slightly faded colors of emerging threat.

The film is full of sharp and tricky dialogues, but its unspoken part is none the less important. We watch true military newsreel, hear Gary Oldman awakening back Churchill`s famous speeches, see real historic places as shooting locations and feel their atmosphere inside each cadre.

“We did some recordings of sounds in the actual ballrooms”,

tells Craig Berkey, who supervised sound edit for the film.

That was the important element in a mosaic of “claustrophobia” which director Joe Wright was willing to show. And don`t forget about exquisite talent of make-up designer Kazuhiro Tsuji and brilliant ideas of costume designer Jacqueline Durran, who had as much task as keeping Gary Oldman and all the King`s men in style.

Finding Winston And The King Himself

The first question to ask after knowing that Gary Oldman was to play Winston Churchill was ‘how come?’. He admits that initially he was reluctant to face such a challenge, it was a greater thing than everything he used to play before. No physical resemblance and no digital graphics, but perfect acting skills made the job done – you will see that hundred percent Churchill and promise you won`t be disappointed.


Thinking about the role, the Academy Award nominee Gary Oldman asked himself a more complicated question:

“Do I see Winston, what`s in my eyes? Do I see Winston Churchill or do I see Albert Finney as Winston Churchill, or Robert Hardy as Winston Churchill?”.

 

The devil is in the detail, and excellency is also in there. Gary Oldman tried to escape from the sample icon of Churchill and dived into chronicles and newsreel to notice something seemingly insignificant for the static coversheet portrait but important for the image on screen. To him Winston “was quite robust”, “had quite small hands”, and “he was holding the cigar on the left side of his mouth”. Anyway, he has found his own path, leaving The Gathering Storm and War And Remembrance on their podium, showing V as ‘victory’ in his own signature way.

The thing about Churchill and other famous characters in Darkest Hour is that they are shown not as politicians but as human beings first, with fears, thoughts, doubts, principles, feelings and decisions. Churchill`s opponents, Neville Chamberlain and Viscount Halifax, are driven not only by political ambitions but by personal creed as well. Churchill`s wife is also depicted not just as a first lady, but a charming woman who sincerely supported her husband and gave him love, respect, advice or even roasting – so everything not to feel distracted from his own family and to know that there is always someone on his side, despite all political cobwebs.

“In my humble opinion it`s the best interpretation of Clementine”,

said Gary Oldman characterizing Kristin Scott Thomas`s role.

All of Darkest Hour talents fit perfectly in the frame of their roles like diamonds in the British crown. King George VI is no exception. Aussie actor Ben Mendelsohn who plays His Majesty frankly says he didn`t know much about his character, but from the chronicles, photos and books learned a lot about a burden of being king by chance.


“He was a man who was not meant to be king. I can only extrapolate from the way he presented it,”

Ben Mendelsohn told me,

“He was a person with a deep shyness, a person who had to concentrate into the role that he was assigned and to do the best that he could”.

 

 

Then he added, “And if you look at his daughter (Queen Elizabeth II) you can see the embodiment and perhaps the apex of that kind of characterism”.

It was truly a pleasure seeing the cast and filmmakers right in front of you talking over their work and ideas and inspiration, trading stories about having fun at rehearsals, and stepping into the shoes of Winston Churchill, and getting Kristin Scott Thomas in cast, and Ben Mendelsohn`s Australian accent (to his credit, you won`t hear a tiniest sound of it in King`s voice).

The latter can make anyone`s day with his explosive sweetness and risibility, that was what he`d exactly done during the Q&A, answering my question about huge responsibility of playing the father of the current head of state and possible reaction of Her Majesty`s office.

“I don`t need the Queen`s permission”,

he said standing right in front of me, waving his hand carelessly, like a charming joyful cat,

“It should be like that if you`re living in a democracy. You know, the experience would show whether or not I could do it (the role) effectively”.

 

And he is right: the biopic picture with much meaning and depth could never taste so good without – surprisingly, but excellently – humor. Nailed down to the historic facts, Darkest Hour is a masterpiece of director and writer`s co-working on igniting the dialogues and situations with elegant jokes that makes no contrary with Churchill`s style and off-the-pattern behaviour. I was positively surprised to laugh so much during the serious film, but that`s great! We are all people, those who make politics, those who make films, and those who watch them. It is an unforgettable feeling of rising in applause at the credit block along with another 1400 people in the theatre, excited about a true work of art and united by seeing it for the first time. Darkest Hour is definitely of that kind of films that you will desire to rewatch.

P.S. The forthcoming events on Darkest Hour with the film cast on board are as follows:

  • Feb 2, 2018 – special award for Gary Oldman at the Santa Barbara International Film Fest
  • Feb 24, 2018 – Gary Oldman as a special guest of Make-up and Hair Stylist Guild Award, The Novo, Los Angeles, CA

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