‘Darkest Hour’: an interview with director Joe Wright

New historical blockbuster Darkest Hour is released in UK cinemas this week, depicting the tense days in May 1940 as Winston Churchill's War Cabinet considered a peace deal with Adolf Hitler. Ahead of the film's release, History Extra spoke to director Joe Wright about the film's portrayal of the iconic wartime leader

Gary Oldman portrays Winson Churchill in 'Darkest Hour'. (© 2017 FOCUS FEATURES LLC. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED)

Gary Oldman portrays Winson Churchill in ‘Darkest Hour’. (© 2017 FOCUS FEATURES LLC. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED)

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Many will be familiar with Winston Churchill’s wartime speeches of the 1940s and might imagine a leader with unshakable resolve who was charging Britain forward during the Second World War. New historical blockbuster Darkest Hour, directed by Joe Wright, written by Anthony McCarten, and with Gary Oldman in the title role, considers a side perhaps less explored: Churchill’s possible indecision and vulnerability during May 1940.

Following the early days of Churchill’s premiership, the prime minister is pitted against members of his War Cabinet who wish to explore a peace deal with Adolf Hitler. Key politicians within the Cabinet – including Lord Halifax, Britain’s foreign secretary, and Neville Chamberlain, who had resigned as prime minister on 10 May 1940 – hope to use Italian ambassador Giuseppe Bastianini as an intermediary to negotiate with Germany. As Operation Dynamo (the evacuation of Allied troops at Dunkirk) begins on 26 May, and the prospects for its success seem grim, the film considers the possibility that Churchill entertained notions of peace with the Nazi leader.

It’s Churchill’s hesitation and doubt that caught the attention of screenwriter Anthony McCarten. He told the History Extra podcast: “I was stunned to see that the Churchill that I thought I knew – the Churchill that we inherit, really – was a man who changed his position on a critical issue of peace with Hitler by the day and sometimes by the hour.”

Podcast Website Anthony McCarten

The film also explores more personal elements of Churchill’s premiership style which might not tally with popular images of the wartime leader. “He took naps in the afternoon,” says McCarten. “He said that you don’t mess about with a nap; you have to strip off, go completely naked, hop into bed, take it seriously and get a good couple of hours. Then you’ll have two days instead of one.”

Elsewhere, Churchill’s drinking habits might raise eyebrows among modern audiences: “He would start the day with a scotch and soda on his breakfast tray beside his bacon and eggs,” says McCarten. “During the war – because milk became unavailable, and he hated condensed milk in his tea – he said ‘to hell with it, give me a glass of white wine, along with the scotch and soda’. He wasn’t finished there: he had a bottle of Pol Roger champagne at lunch and then another with his evening meal, followed by port.”

Gary Oldman portrays Winson Churchill in 'Darkest Hour
Gary Oldman portrays Winson Churchill in ‘Darkest Hour’. (© 2017 FOCUS FEATURES LLC. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED)

Here, the film’s director Joe Wright talks to History Extra about the eccentricities, qualities and legacy of the wartime leader…

Q: Many might first know Churchill for his famous rhetoric and his wartime bulldog spirit, though fewer people might think of his vulnerability, especially under pressure. Why did you choose to portray this side of the leader in Darkest Hour, and why do you think it’s important to show him with doubts and flaws?

Joe Wright: Because he is human. Like most people in London, and perhaps Britain, I grew up with the view that Churchill was this giant, heavy sculpture standing on a plinth in Parliament Square, completely untouchable and unknowable. And therefore, he was kind of useless to me. By taking him off the plinth and meeting the man face-to-face and allowing him to be human, to have his flaws and to have made his mistakes, we can also see how at this very specific point in British history, he changed the world with his words. This portrayal can inspire me to resist that which I find most troubling at the moment.

I don’t trust people who claim to know everything, or claim to know that they have all the answers and never doubt. I think doubt is an important human quality and without it, we’ll never gain any wisdom. I want my leaders to have doubt and to question themselves. I think that’s very important.

I was shocked by how much he drank. But I was delighted by his humour. He was funny and he used humour – like most of us do I, think – as a defence against that which was most uncomfortable. I really appreciate that about him.

'Darkest Hour director Joe Wright'
‘Darkest Hour’ director Joe Wright. (© 2017 FOCUS FEATURES LLC. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED)

Q: The whole film builds towards one particularly famous speech (“We shall fight on the beaches,” 4 June 1940) and Churchill’s skill with words is a key part of the story. What did you find out about his speaking style and what did you hope to portray?

JW: The fact that he wrote those speeches himself is quite remarkable. He didn’t have speechwriters; these were his words that he wrote, in order to express his feelings and his principles. They weren’t written to appeal to the broadest possible electorate, they were written to express his truth. I don’t see that much these days in politics.

Q: With no recordings of Churchill’s famous speeches as they were originally delivered, how do you go about piecing together their delivery and how they were first received?

JW: I think that Churchill had an eye to the stage. He was a performer. When he later recorded the speeches for radio [Churchill recorded his 4 June 1940 speech for posterity in 1949], he was probably propped up in bed, intimately speaking into a microphone. But in 1940 when he was faced with 500–600 members of parliament in the House of Commons, I think he would have given it a bit of Henry V.

There are also recordings and bits of film showing him giving after-dinner speeches and so on, later in his life. There’s one wonderful piece of film where he’s about to give a speech on TV and you can hear him talking to the clapper boy before they go for a take. His rhythm and cadence is completely different in his private speech from the one that we know, from the recordings of his big speeches.

He was an arch manipulator. He used all the tools that a statesman has at his disposal. He would play people. He was not a religious man at all, but in the final speech portrayed in the film, he uses the word ‘God’ very specifically just as he’s about to talk about America, because he understood that America was a deeply religious county. When he says “in God’s good time, the new world, with all its power and might, steps forth to the rescue and the liberation of the old”, he’s speaking specifically to the Americans. That’s a piece of arch manipulation.

Q: What was the element about Churchill that most surprised you during the making of this film? 

JW: I think it’s how close he came to making a deal with Hitler. I didn’t know that, and that only came to light through the research of the Cabinet meeting minutes. It’s not something that Churchill ever wrote about, and there’s very little in any of the big biographies of how close he came.

Churchill on the Underground in Darkest Hour
In ‘Darkest Hour’, Churchill travels on the London Underground and finds out how the public feels about a peace deal with the Nazis. (© 2017 FOCUS FEATURES LLC. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED)
Q: There’s also another arc in the film, showing how Churchill tries to connect with the public and find out the feelings of the populace. What do we know about this connection and how did he go about forging it? 

JW: In the film, we’ve created this scene where he goes into the Underground and seeks the counsel of the populace there. That didn’t happen in reality, but what he did do was keep a very close eye on the polls at the time. He knew from the polls that the British public, and especially the working classes, were very supportive of the policy of continuing to fight Hitler. He used those polls to support his position.

Q: Can we talk a little about Clementine Churchill? She’s a key support for Churchill in your film and clearly a very strong character herself. What do we know about her and how she supported him?

JW: We know from their letters that Clementine was always supportive of him, but often she also questioned him. She didn’t just fawn.

You know that saying: behind every great man is a great woman? She wasn’t behind him; she stood next to him. Her policies and political leanings were more liberal than his. She’d experienced hardship and borderline poverty in her youth, so she understood those concerns.

Kristin Scott Thomas portrays Clementine Churchill in 'Darkest Hour'
Kristin Scott Thomas portrays Clementine Churchill in ‘Darkest Hour’. (© 2017 FOCUS FEATURES LLC. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED)

Q: Another key relationship is that between Churchill and George V. While a lot of people might imagine that they were quite close, the portrayal is that Halifax was very much the king’s first choice to succeed Chamberlain as PM.

JW: Yes, Halifax was the king’s first choice and Halifax and the king were very close. Halifax even had a key to the back garden of Buckingham Palace so that he didn’t need to walk around, but could walk through the garden. At the beginning, the king supported his friend Halifax and later came around to Churchill’s position.

Winston Churchill making the famed ‘V’ for Victory sign. (Image by Bettmann/Getty Images)

Q: You’ve spoken of being careful not to present Halifax as a ‘villain’ because, in another time, Halifax’s drive for peace might have been justified.

JW: Absolutely. While one has to see this story in the context of the time, we also see this story in the context of hindsight. We now know that Churchill made the right decision and Britain won the war, but it could have easily turned out differently and I do believe that Halifax and Chamberlain were pursuing their policy in order to save lives – they weren’t acting out of self-interest or malice. Their argument is a very strong one and I wanted to create a tension in the audience between the two arguments. I didn’t want Churchill to always be right or to appear to be right, as that would make for a very undramatic film. I wanted the audience to have an ambivalent response to both arguments.

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Joe Wright is a British film director whose works include Atonement (2007), Pride and Prejudice (2005) and Anna Karenina (2012). Darkest Hour, starring Gary Oldman, Ben Mendelsohn, Kristin Scott Thomas and Lily James, is in cinemas now.