But few have seemed such surprising casting for the part of the jowly, growly politician as Gary Oldman, who takes the role in Darkest Hour, after a career featuring lean, mean roles including Commissioner Gordon in the Dark Knight trilogy, Sid Vicious in Sid and Nancy and Sirius Black in the Harry Potter films.
“Gary was always the obvious casting choice for me,” insists Joe Wright, the film’s director. “You have a choice: you can either cast for the essence of a character, or the physicality. The physique is easy to fake – with prosthetics and so on – but the essence isn’t. When I watched footage of Churchill, instead of this big, lumbering, slow-moving guy you often think of, I was struck by his energy, both physical and mental. So I needed an actor who would think and move fast, and Gary absolutely brings that.”
Wright accepted, though, that the familiar Churchill silhouette – hat and cigar topping mounds of chin and belly flesh – was going to be a stretch for Oldman. “So we then spent five months developing the prosthetics and gradually built up Churchill. One of the first notes I gave Gary was: ‘How does he breathe?’ And he started doing this slightly wheezy, cigar-smoker sound.”
Darkest Hour (in cinemas from Friday 12 January) started from the screenwriter Anthony McCarten noticing that, in just four weeks during 1940, Churchill gave three speeches now regarded among the greatest political orations, known in shorthand by their most memorable lines “Blood, toil, tears and sweat”, “We shall fight on the beaches” and “This was their finest hour”. Cumulatively, these words, all written or improvised by Churchill himself, persuaded parliament and the public to reject the view, led by foreign secretary Lord Halifax, that Britain should negotiate peace with Hitler.
Coincidentally, today’s foreign secretary, Boris Johnson, is so obsessed with the man Oldman plays that he wrote a book about him, The Churchill Factor. “I read it, obviously.” says Wright. “There are some interesting and funny anecdotes. But it seemed to me a self-publicising piece of work… that somehow he’s hoping people will draw comparisons between him and Churchill, which I think is self-delusionary and deeply misguided.”
The all-male nature of the politics of the day was a novelty for a director whose major movies – Atonement, Pride & Prejudice, Anna Karenina – have been adaptations of novels (by Ian McEwan, Jane Austen and Leo Tolstoy) with female protagonists. “Yes. I’ve never really got on with man-based films, or even men particularly. I find it much easier to relate to women. And I finally got to the point where I thought I really ought to have a look at this, and do something about it, especially as I now have two boys. But after two weeks of shooting the war cabinet scenes, with 17 men sitting round a table, I did think: ‘OK, I’ve done enough of this now.’”
While his sons, Zubin (aged six) and Mohan (aged two), with his musician wife Anoushka Shankar, may have inspired him to delve into the world of men and politics, it was his parents who inspired a young Joe into the arts. They founded the Little Angel Theatre company, a puppet theatre in north London, which encouraged Wright to make films on his Super 8 camera and take drama lessons.
“I’ve always wanted to make a topical film,” Wright says. “But somehow, as we were making it, Darkest Hour seemed to become more and more contemporary.” Any topicality, though, is complicated, he concedes. A Brexiteer might see it as a film about the importance of standing up to the Germans; President Trump could spot a moral about the need to attack the North Koreans, rather than appeasing them. “Yes, the politics of the film are ambiguous. I always tend to recoil if I think the writer or director is telling me what to think. I’m not a politician, so I don’t have to have policies.”
One accidental modern connection – at this time of scandal over the conduct of powerful men – is that Churchill is reported to have paraded naked in front of secretaries after baths, and sometimes gave dictation in a robe that might fall open. In the film, a young female staff member looks away just in time to avoid a Churchillian full-frontal. Was the film also tactfully looking away from behaviour that might panic audiences today? “I don’t know. I really don’t think Churchill was a sexual predator, but that kind of eccentric exhibitionism would get a knock on the door these days, as it should. I think he was weirdly a sort of naturist. I do think it’s really dangerous to canonise our leaders, or our celebrities. Churchill was intensely human and deeply flawed.”
This leads inevitably to Harvey Weinstein, the multiple-Oscar-winning producer brought down by multiple allegations of serious sexual impropriety in the film business. “Over the past 12 years,” says Wright. “Harvey used to try to get me to have a meeting with him. And I rather enjoyed avoiding it because I didn’t like the sound of his business practices. I didn’t think he was respectful of the artist. He sounded like a nasty bully, so I feel very lucky never to have met him, nor worked with him.”
Darkest Hour is released in UK cinemas on Friday 12th January