As renowned politicians fade into legend, it’s easy to remember the grand speeches and the grand decisions and forget that, at the end of the day, they had to appeal to grand numbers of people in order to achieve the standing needed to make said decisions and speeches. Through his masterful, much-praised turn as Winston Churchill, Gary Oldman helps bring a human touch to the British Bulldog in director Joe Wright’s “Darkest Hour.”
“We felt, both Joe and I, think he’s been played as a bit of an old sort of curmudgeon,” Oldman said in an interview in Georgetown, sitting next to his director. “The Churchill that we saw, and certainly that I was getting at from the newsreels, was someone who was dynamic and youthful and full of vitality — cherubic, with a twinkle, sparkle in the eye.”
Oldman’s performance as Churchill stands in contrast to other recent portrayals of Britain’s greatest Prime Minister, among them John Lithgow’s broken down grump in “The Crown” and Brian Cox’s peacocking amongst legendary peers in “Churchill,” a film that could have been subtitled “Great Man Theory,” because Oldman gives us a better sense of how it was that Churchill ever came to be loved and respected enough by the people to lead them through one of Britain’s toughest times.
The showiest example of this comes in a subway car, when, unsure of himself and how hard he should push the nation to fight the Nazis, Churchill comes into contact with the masses. A bit of nervous chatter gives way to easy joking — “He looks like you,” a mother says of the eight-month-old boy on her lap; “All babies look like me,” Churchill replies, the dry self-deprecation earning genuine laughs — before coaxing out their anger at the idea of ever surrendering to the madman in Berlin: “Fight!”; “Fight them!”; “Street by street!” come the replies.
Churchill is probably best known for his speeches. Wright said he first grew interested in the project when he noticed that, in a collection of great political speeches, three were from a relatively short period during Churchill’s tenure as prime minister. And the film is structured around three oratories — his first as prime minister to the House of Commons; his first address over the radio to the people of Britain; and then, finally, the “We shall fight on the beaches” speech — using them as a way to gauge his standing in the party he hopes to rouse to war. But it’s not the speeches that stand out in “Darkest Hour.” It’s Churchill’s awkwardness around the King George VI (Ben Mendelsohn), his uncomfortable manner around his family, the amusing way he makes himself known to the public.
“We were trying to take Churchill down off his plinth,” Wright said. “The icon, you know. Which is, I don’t think is very useful, to have him up there. We wanted to meet him face to face and learn from him and see who this incredible character who determined, really, the course of history — to see who he was. We found someone who was dynamic and cherubic and very funny — this, this enormous heart, full of all sorts of flaws, as are we all. And I think to acknowledge the flaws of our heroes is very healthy.”
Healthy, but also tricky, especially in our current climate when flaws are often treated as illnesses more than quirks. Churchill was, of course, a famous drinker — one of the more amusing recurring points is the king’s inability to understand just where Winnie puts it all during the day and into the night and then in the morning again — but he seemed to realize just how it all looked to everyone else.
“After our film takes place, I’m not sure when it was, but he was giving a speech to a gathering and he gets a frog in his throat,” Oldman recalled discovering during his research. “And he picks up this glass and sips it—it’s obviously water—and drinks it and says ‘I don’t often do that.’ It brought the house down. Those were the days you could make fun of yourself about alcohol; now if you did that you’d have to go to rehab, wouldn’t you?”
Oldman perfectly captures that sort of puckishness in Churchill, as he did the charming punkishness in Sid Vicious some 30 years ago in “Sid & Nancy” — “from punk to pug,” he said with a laugh, waving away the coincidence of having in his career played both the consummate example of Old Britannia and also the punk who hoped to tear it all down. His genius as an actor is making us identify with both men and both modes of existence in almost equal measure — and reminding us that behind every legend is a charismatic man.