Many actors have played Winston Churchill. He was, after all, an instantly recognisable figure in life and an iconic and historically significant figure in death, with every child learning how the British Prime Minister led and inspired Britain during the country’s own darkest hours during the Second World War. Now Gary Oldman is the latest actor to take up the mantle of playing the former PM in Darkest Hour (interestingly, making him the sixth actor from the Harry Potter franchise to play the role, demonstrating just how many actors have portrayed him).
Of all the people you would expect Oldman to want to secure the approval of, recently deceased actor Robert Hardy would be one of them. Hardy starred as Churchill three times throughout the 1980s in the critically acclaimed TV mini-series, Winston Churchill: The Wilderness Years, then again in War and Remembrance and in TV movie Bomber Harris. In his final interview before he passed away last August, Hardy is quoted telling the Daily Mail online: “From everything I’ve seen and heard, Oldman’s portrayal of Churchill is far more convincing than some other recent portrayals. He certainly looks the part, he’s undergone a remarkable transformation. But it’s not just his appearance – he’s managed to catch the essence of the man.”
In his interview, Hardy warned of the danger for an actor to depend too much on Churchill’s trademark props like his cigar and bowler hats to deliver a convincing performance. He added: “It’s important to get the little details right. It’s not just the look, but stance, style and speech, too.” Oldman certainly put the effort in, reportedly spending over 200 hours in makeup undergoing a total transformation that required the “fattening” of his body via the use of prosthetics, which weighed half his own weight. As if that wasn’t enough to get into the role, Oldman revealed on The Graham Norton Show that the budget designated to cigars alone for the film was over £18,000. By the end of the film, he had smoked over 400 cigars, so much so that he had nicotine poisoning by the end of the film and had to undergo a colonoscopy as a result. Luckily, he got the all clear but talk about dedication to your craft!
The lead actor’s commitment to the role certainly paid off in more ways than one. The time and effort he put into researching Churchill’s mannerisms to really capture the wartime leader’s presence, personality and spirit have won praise from Churchill’s own granddaughters, Celia Sandys and Emma Soames, which they revealed in a BBC Radio 2 interview. On a less personal yet grander scale, Oldman is an Oscar favourite to win Best Actor in a Leading Role in this year’s awards. The stirring film is also enjoying being nominated in the prestigious Best Picture category as well as being in the running for Cinematography, Costume Design, Makeup and Hairstyling and Production Design. And if Oldman doesn’t bag himself an Oscar, at least he’s already picked up a gong for Best Performance by an Actor in a Motion Picture at the Golden Globes for his portrayal of the remarkable PM.
He may have studied reels of footage to master Churchill’s persona but Oldman’s belief that “you get to a point where it [portraying Churchill] has to become creation rather the impersonation”, which he conveyed in a BBC interview, as well highlighting his eagerness not to be influenced by Robert Hardy and Albert Finney’s acclaimed versions of Churchill, meant that he made the role his own giving a dynamic performance.
However, no stranger to controversy, The Oscars have faced some backlash after announcing Oldman as a nominee against the backdrop of the current #MeToo campaign. Many have pointed out that Oldman was accused of assaulting his ex-wife, Donya Fiorentino, in 2001, though no charges were ever filed. It comes down to the question of do we judge a film by the lead actor’s real-life personal past, particularly a questionable act that happened seventeen years ago that he wasn’t convicted of in a court of law, or by his performance and acting talent during filming? Hopefully, Oldman didn’t get away with assaulting his ex-wife and, of course, a criminal shouldn’t be publicly rewarded at an event like The Oscars, but when they haven’t been convicted, talented actors like Oldman deserve career recognition.
Similar parallels can be drawn to the things people have pointed out about the portrayal of Churchill and the former Prime Minister’s character. A key scene shows Churchill jumping out of his car, much to the surprise of his chauffeur, and taking the tube to Westminster. Whilst on the train, he asks the everyday passengers what their thoughts are on him entering into peace talks with Hitler, facilitated by the Italian leader Mussolini and whether they believe he should take steps to combat a likely Nazi invasion instead. I like the fact that Churchill is portrayed as listening to the people, a quality many would agree that some modern-day politicians lack.
It was important to capture this trait of his, as willing to think outside-the-box, break the mould and go directly to the people, but director Joe Wright didn’t have much time to capture all the sides of his character, despite the film’s 2-hour running time, as the events of Darkest Hour are all set in just one month, May 1940. In actual fact, Churchill regularly went AWOL and turned up all over London seeking the opinion of Joe Bloggs public but there’s no record of him doing it on a train. As the movie’s screenwriter, Anthony McCarten said: “It’s a perfect example of how you’re trying to dramatize verifiable events that might have happened outside the time frame of your movie, but which are very, very valuable for the dramatist in showing critical aspects of your story.”
Overall Darkest Hour doesn’t emit the over-dramatised feel that some Hollywood war films fall into the trap of giving. When it does deviate from the truth, such as condensing Churchill’s request to ally America for planes to help Britain evade a seemingly imminent German invasion, into one phone call with fellow leader Franklin Roosevelt, when, in actual fact, the request is likely to have been the result of several discussions and telegrams between President Roosevelt Churchill and Arthur Purvis from the Britsh Purchasing Commission, it is purely for screening purposes and time restraints.
Darkest Hour portrays Churchill as an intelligent, intuitive and fair man who values the opinions of the people he is leading. However, the film doesn’t make many nods, as some people have noticed, to the questionable opinions he had, especially those regarding race. Churchill’s views, although not deemed ‘right’ by today’s standards are likely to have been the commonly-held belief during his era and a product of his upbringing. Personally, I agree with Churchill’s grandson, Sir Nicholas Soames who said: “You’re talking about one of the greatest men the world has ever seen, who was a child of the Edwardian age and spoke the language of [it].” Clearly, it was crazy to apply the morals of today’s society to Churchill’s era. Churchill’s legacy and the crucial role he played in boosting the country’s morale during the worst war that had ever been seen can also have the effect for the audience of forgetting Churchill’s very human faults and flaws and, like Oldman, Churchill was known for many good things but, like most people, had dark elements in his past that dogged his reputation.
What bad or unorthodox side of Churchill that makes it into the movie is cleverly captured using humour. His outlandishness is apparent when the King (Ben Mendelsohn) is trying to organise a convenient time to meet with this PM each week and Churchill brashly (but hilariously) replies: “I nap at 4”. His lack of patience is clear when he rather amusingly calls his typist (Lily James) a ‘nincompoop’ on her first day when she makes an honest mistake. His reputation for being blunt and unpredictable even scares the King and he has no embarrassment or shame of the fact that he expects his typist to take notes while he’s on the loo. “To not buggering it up,” says the newly appointment PM as he celebrates his new job role with his family in a toast. And considering he faced immensely high pressure and the nearly impossible task of being Prime Minister of a country at war with the odds stacked against him and scheming politicians plotting his downfall, Churchill, for all his mistakes, didn’t ‘bugger it up’.
The sheer amount of Oscar nominations illustrates how the film thrives in other areas than leading actor. Kristen Scott Thomas puts on a captivating performance as his understanding, supportive and encouraging yet at times exasperated wife, and the whole film is simply a great British movie.
Being very dialogue-led based on the rousing speeches delivered by Oldman in emotive performances, the film is naturally slow-paced, so I wouldn’t recommend watching it if you’re into action or wartime scenes. Instead, the film is an excellent portrayal of an extraordinary man who rallied his country at its time of need.