Darkest Hour – a thrilling account inspired by the true story of Winston Churchill’s first weeks in office

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“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.”

“Words can, and do, change the world. This is precisely what happened through Winston Churchill in 1940,” marvels BAFTA Award-winning screenwriter and producer Anthony McCarten. The linchpins of his original screenplay for Darkest Hour became three speeches that Churchill wrote and delivered between May and June 1940. “He was under intense political and personal pressure, yet he was spurred to such heights in so few days – over and over again.”

Academy Award nominee and BAFTA Award winner Gary Oldman stars for BAFTA Award-winning director Joe Wright in Darkest Hour, a thrilling account inspired by the true story of Winston Churchill’s first weeks in office during the early days of the Second World War. Academy Award nominee Anthony McCarten’s original screenplay takes a revelatory look at the man behind the icon.

A witty and brilliant statesman, Churchill is a stalwart member of Parliament but at age 65 is an unlikely candidate for Prime Minister; however the situation in Europe is desperate.  With Allied nations continuing to fall against Nazi troops, and with the entire British army stranded in France, Churchill is named to the position with urgency on May 10th, 1940.

As the threat of invasion of the UK by Hitler’s forces looms and 300,000 British soldiers cornered in Dunkirk, Churchill finds his own party plotting against him and King George VI (Emmy Award winner Ben Mendelsohn) skeptical that his new Prime Minister can rise to the challenge.  He is confronted with the ultimate choice: negotiate a peace treaty with Nazi Germany and save the British people at a terrible cost or fight on against incredible odds. 

With the support of his wife of 31 years, Clemmie (Academy Award nominee Kristin Scott Thomas), Churchill looks to the British people to inspire him to stand firm and fight for his nation’s ideals, liberty, and freedom. Putting his power with words to the ultimate test, with the help of his tireless secretary (Lily James), Winston must write and deliver speeches that will rally a nation. As Winston withstands his own darkest hour, he attempts to change the course of world history forever.

McCarten found inspiration in Churchill’s speeches and oratory

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Born in New Zealand and now residing in England, Anthony McCarten is an award-winning playwright, novelist, and filmmaker.

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, the Academy Award-nominated one 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 was already at war with Adolf Hitler, and one democracy after another had fallen to his Nazi forces. Britain now stood on the edge of a precipice. The dilemma was, 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.”

Lives also hung in the balance during May and June 1940, as over 200,000 British soldiers – the UK’s entire Expeditionary Force – were trapped on the beaches of Dunkirk, France, awaiting rescue and evacuation.

McCarten’s research led him to the minutes of Churchill’s War Cabinet meetings.  He notes, “These revealed a period of uncertainty, something we don’t take into account considering his robust leadership. Winston knew he had made wrong calls in the past, certainly during World War I with the Battle of Gallipoli.

“Pedestals are for statues, not for people, and a close reading of the minutes reveals not only a leader in trouble, under attack from all sides and uncertain what direction to take, but also just how dangerously close a country came to entering into a ‘peace’ deal with an enemy who, if unchecked, would have reshaped the world forever.”

Ultimately, says McCarten, the Darkest Hour screenplay took shape “examining the working methods and leadership qualities and trains of thought. Winston strongly believed that words mattered, and he took pen in hand to help him – and his country – face down a terrifying threat.

“In the process came the self-willed making of an iconic man.”

Setting himself a concentrated work schedule to mirror the historical time frame, McCarten after eight days had 16 pages. He showed these to Academy Award-nominated and BAFTA Award-winning producer Lisa Bruce, with whom he had made The Theory of Everything, as the project was being completed.

Bruce remarks, “I read it, and at once I realized Anthony was again designing an intimate look at the humanity of an icon. We have all learned about WWII and maybe think we remember more than we do, so Anthony put just enough contextual information into his script; even if you don’t know everything about this period you can clearly follow what’s going on in the world that Winston orbited.

“With Darkest Hour, although the wit and intelligence he’s known for are very much in evidence, you see him in such a different way. What Anthony was focusing on — an extreme moment in time – powerfully conveys Churchill’s vision and voice as a leader and his ability to assess what mattered. Churchill was able to tune out the noise and get people behind him, even opposing party members. He got everyone in line with the idea to stand and fight Hitler, understanding the threat and the bigger – much bigger – picture.”

She adds that, decades on, “Darkest Hour is timely because we feel a void of leadership now; we want someone to rise to the occasion as Winston did. The title came from his own assessment of this period as the biggest challenge he ever faced. His whole life – which was already impressive – had been leading up to this moment.”

As McCarten delivered more pages, Bruce moved to advance the project by bringing it to the attention of their fellow The Theory of Everything producers, Academy Award nominees and BAFTA Award winners Tim Bevan and Eric Fellner of Working Title Films.

Fellner sensed that the story of “a statesman finding grace under pressure” would appeal to one of Working Title’s key creative collaborators, BAFTA Award-winning director Joe Wright; the production company and the director had teamed so successfully on, among other projects, Atonement, with its unforgettable World War II scenes.

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.”

Fellner’s instinct was correct, as Wright found himself “immediately wrapped up in what was a real page-turner, pure drama. I’ve always considered the Second World War to be the fulcrum of the 20th century. It changed everything.

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“If the audience today can engage with an icon of that time as a human being, then his qualities of leadership will be that much more inspiring.”

After Wright committed to the project, he worked closely on the script’s progress. McCarten reports, “Joe became such a partner in the process; I spent many weeks with his putting my feet to the fire on every line of the script. I must have gone over to his house 20 times, and each time he would greet me with, ‘Good to see you! Okay, page one…’

“That thoroughness and testing of every moment truly tightened up the screenplay.”

Wright notes, “I envisioned this as a film for the world, not solely for a British audience.

Born to a family of puppeteers, Joe Wright and grew up in the theatre his parents founded, The Little Angel Theatre in Islington, London. Wright studied Fine Art, Film and Video at Central St Martin’s College of Art. After college he worked on music videos and short films until 1997 when he was commissioned to direct Nature Boy, a four-part mini-series for BBC2. Wright made his feature film directorial debut in 2005 with Pride & Prejudiceand also directed Atonement, The Soloist, Anna Karenina, Pan, and in 2016, Wright directed the acclaimed “Nosedive” episode of the television series Black Mirror.  Wright is a director of Shoebox Films, a London based film and television production company which, among other work, produced Steve Nights’ critically acclaimed and multi-award winning thriller Locke starring Tom Hardy.

“We’ve all seen movies about leaders. Thematically, Darkest Hour is very much about doubt, a crisis of confidence. What’s so engaging about it is you’re with a legend as he rises above the difficulties we have all faced.”

Bruce remarks, ““I learned a lot from Joe during the journey to get this movie made. Joe thinks in highly visual terms; he has the whole story in his head and knows where he wants to take the audience emotionally.”

Given the intimidation factor for actors of portraying an icon, the filmmakers had anticipated casting challenges.

McCarten reflects, “I was hoping that a revisionist take could be part of the portrayal. I wanted to see an actor completely recalibrate our sense of who Winston was, and I envisioned a Gary Oldman-caliber actor.”

Indeed, whenever the Academy Award-nominated and BAFTA Award-winning actor’s name is mentioned, it follows that a generation of actors who have aspired to his career comes to mind.

But Fellner thought it best to go to the source – Gary Oldman himself – whom he began his film career with back in 1986 making Sid and Nancy, which also happened to be Gary’s first feature film.

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Gary Oldman and director Joe Wright discuss a scene during the filming of Darkest Hour

Transformative

 Gary Oldman’s longtime producing partner, BAFTA Award winner Douglas Urbanski, comments, “Making a movie about Winston Churchill would defy logic – unless you were examining a specific incident or time frame, which Darkest Hour does.

“When Eric Fellner began to bring people together to discuss the project, we realized that this would be a journey worth taking – a movie that would entertain people but also make them stop and think about the resonance of history.”

“When I heard, ‘Gary Oldman portraying Winston Churchill,’ I thought, ‘What a performance that will be to witness,’” says Joe Wright. “He has been my favorite actor since I was a teen: Sid and Nancy, Prick Up Your Ears, The Firm…”

But would an actor who had already incarnated real-life figures ranging from Sid Vicious to Beethoven to Lee Harvey Oswald be willing to take on Winston Churchill?

Oldman reflects, “I had always been fascinated by Churchill as he 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.

“What I liked about Anthony’s wonderful script is that it’s not a ‘biopic.’ It dramatizes a few crucial weeks in our history straight through, so there’s no jumping forward or back and no aging.”

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.”

Urbanski notes, “The script only spans specific weeks, yet Gary still wanted to read all about him, sponge up everything he could about Churchill.”

Dr. Larry P. Arnn, a Churchill historian and biographer, recommended to Oldman what the actor took as “essential reading. Which was a help, because there have to be 1,000 books about him; you could spend years reading about the man!”

Urbanski comments, “Dr. Arnn and our historical advisor, Phil Reed, would review everything we submitted to them for accuracy. They would also visit the set whenever we asked.”

Oldman reports, “I kept at it vocally, and looked at a wealth of documentary footage that revealed a 65-year-old man with so much energy and drive.”

Churchill’s esteemed career and achievements, including his heroics during the Boer War, are well-documented. But Oldman still found himself in awe as he tallied the man’s accomplishments. He enumerates, “Over 50 years in government. 50 books written – he would later get the Nobel Prize for Literature. Decorated in four wars. 500 paintings, with 16 exhibitions at the Royal Academy.”

“Had it not been for him, what would our world be like? There’s no one to touch him. There’s still no one like him.”

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Taking Ownership

Anthony McCarten acknowledges that “there are scenes in Darkest Hour where Winston Churchill looks distinctly un-Prime Ministerial.”

Joe Wright reports, “Daytime meals for Winston would often be accompanied by a glass of white wine and/or scotch, and because of the hours he kept it was not unusual for him to hold meetings from his bed, or even from his bath. He’d dictate memos for the day from bed and receive visitors and talk about matters of state wearing his dressing gown and nightshirt.

“Finally, no matter what was going on, he would nap every day at 4 in the afternoon – and he kept a very small single bed down in the War Rooms. He was a proper English eccentric.”

McCarten remarks, “To get at the man behind the icon, it was important to establish the character traits in Churchill. We’re dramatizing specific moments, but everything came from our research.

“Something that history books have not cited often, which is particularly revelatory, is that he was the architect of the Operation Dynamo boat rescue at Dunkirk, where civilian crafts and everyday people were called upon to help get their countrymen home.

“The rescue at Dunkirk was Winston Churchill’s idea, and it saved thousands of lives – British and French.”

Ultimately, the screenwriter wanted “to push the boundaries of our understanding of him. With regard to Churchill, I feel his three-dimensional nature had become buried under a veneer of history. The more famous a historical figure is, the greater the sense of public ownership in them.

“Winston’s weaknesses, foibles, and doubts have been airbrushed out of even the most thorough biographies; he’s now often portrayed as this completely resolute character. I think we do him more justice when we present him warts-and-all. In the last 10 years scholarship is starting to reveal other dimensions, so Darkest Hour is part of that new school of thinking.”

Phil Reed, OBE, Emeritus Director Churchill War Rooms was historical advisor on Darkest Hour. He comments, “Winston Churchill is often seen as the man who saved his country and the world. This film illuminates that period in his life when he absolutely nailed his colors to the mast and went down a very certain avenue.

“The transformation was from being surrounded by people who didn’t trust him or respect him to being the leader who had to place his imprint on the government, on his countrymen, on the world – and he made it.”