Discovering a different Churchill

Gary Oldman plays wartime leader Winston Churchill in Darkest Hour, which opens in Singapore in January.
Gary Oldman plays wartime leader Winston Churchill in Darkest Hour, which opens in Singapore in January. PHOTO: JACK ENGLISH/ FOCUS FEATURES

Gary Oldman, who spent four months researching his role in Darkest Hour, found a man who was athletic and funny

NEW YORK • He fought with distinction and held almost every major office in Britain. He commanded a country in the midst of a world war and is credited with inventing the social safety net. He has been called an imperialist and a warmonger. A drunk and a racist. He won the Nobel Prize for literature - rivalled only by Shakespeare in his prolific literary output - and painted more than 500 pictures in his lifetime. And, some argue, he single-handedly saved civilisation.

Winston Churchill was a complex and contradictory leader unlike any in recent history. And he also presents one of the most soughtafter and challenging roles for any actor worth his salt.

"He could pitch. He could bat. He could run," actor Gary Oldman said in a recent interview. "He's the ultimate all-rounder."

Oldman, a British lion in his own right, takes on Churchill in Darkest Hour (due in Singapore on Jan 4).

The movie, directed by Joe Wright, chronicles the defining 28 days in 1940 when Churchill was made prime minister and finally convinced Britain to stay the course and fight Hitler - when the fate of the world hung in the balance.

The film is an often tense character study, exposing Churchill's own moments of self-doubt and the resistance he faced from the public, his party and his king.

Countless movies have been made about Churchill, but Wright was drawn to this particular period because of what that uncertainty revealed about the man.

He's quite often portrayed as old, grumpy, a curmudgeon. Lugubrious and grunting and shouting. That's how I've seen him played and I think that contaminated my thinking about him.

ACTOR GARY OLDMAN on British leader Winston Churchill

"I was fascinated by the portrayal of Churchill as a human being," Wright said. "He's become such an icon that he's either untouchable or a demon. To take him down from his perch and not throw him in the gutter, but look at him eye to eye" was the appeal.

The movie also tries to understand Churchill through his use of language, with the sound of typewriters constantly clacking in the background.

"They are the most iconic speeches in the history of the English language and they were all written in 28 days, so how these speeches came to be and how he came to express the will and the sentiment of the nation is really the subject," Wright added.

In one of the most stirring scenes, Churchill famously addresses the House of Commons, arguing that the British need to face the Nazi threat at all costs:

"If we fail, then the whole world, including the United States, including all that we have known and cared for, will sink into the abyss of a new Dark Age made more sinister, and perhaps more protracted, by the lights of perverted science. Let us therefore brace ourselves to our duties and so bear ourselves, that if the British Empire and its Commonwealth last for a thousand years, men will still say, 'This was their finest hour.'"

Speaking those words is a dream for actors, but the role also represents an enormous risk, Oldman said, where you could easily slip into caricature.

"He's quite often portrayed as old, grumpy, a curmudgeon. Lugubrious and grunting and shouting," Oldman said. "That's how I've seen him played and I think that contaminated my thinking about him."

To get at the man beneath those cigar-puffing, jowly stereotypes, enhanced by make-up, Oldman spent four months researching and preparing for the role - watching footage, reading his many works and those of biographers such as Martin Gilbert and even politician Boris Johnson.

He visited Churchill's family homes, Chartwell and Blenheim Palace, and talked to people who knew him.

"I discovered a man who was not as fat as we all thought he was in 1940 and who had an athletic tread. He skipped around and he had this sort of stoop and it was forward moving," Oldman said, adding: "There's a real twinkle in the eye and he had humour. The Churchill I saw and discovered had charm."

Oldman also spent time in the war rooms in Westminster, where those fateful decisions were made, and sat in the great man's chair.

"On the left-hand arm of the chair were these marks where he had made scratches with his nails," the actor recalled. "And on the right-hand side were scratches from the ring that he used to wear. He was in this chair throughout the war, so you can imagine the stress and strain that he was under."

What many people now fail to realise, he added, is "how precariously close he came to disaster" and that he was himself resistant to war.

"His most powerful and beautiful words were about the horror of war."

NYTIMES

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on November 08, 2017, with the headline 'Discovering a different Churchill'. Print Edition | Subscribe